Although not a disaster, Masterminds is a disposable and middling off-kilter heist comedy that squanders its cast’s talents on subpar material.
The year is 1997 and David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis) is an ordinary man pushing 40 who spends his days stuck in a monotonous routine – driving an armored vehicle and delivering money to (and from) the Charlotte, North Carolina regional office vault of Loomis, Fargo & Co. Everything changes when David meets Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig), a coworker and David’s not-so-secret crush. She eventually convinces David to carry out a robbery of the Loomis vault, with the assistance of her scheming longtime friend, Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson), and his band of untrustworthy conspirators.
Upon, somewhat miraculously, pulling the job off, David agrees to head out to Mexico, under the belief that he will lay low there (with Kelly), until the situation “cools down.” However, Steve and the rest of his gang have other plans – and before long, David finds himself having to deal with not only his double-crossing collaborators, but also the FBI and a hitman (Jason Sudeikis) whom Steve hires in an attempt to simplify things… by having David taken out of the equation.
Inspired by the real-life Loomis Fargo Robbery in 1997 (one of the largest cash robberies ever in the U.S., at the time), Masterminds is the latest movie directed by Jared Hess: the filmmaker behind such cult hit comedies as Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, among others. As a director, Hess is now known for his unabashedly quirky comedy style – often blending absurd humor and situations with equally off-kilter characters – and so, many filmgoers already know if his comedy approach is to their liking or not. With that in mind, even fans of Hess’ previous work might find Masterminds to be lacking by comparison, due to its slack execution and misuse of a talented ensemble cast.
Masterminds plays out as both a heist comedy and a burlesque of the actual Loomis Fargo Robbery. The film tends to avoid being overly mean-spirited in the way that it portrays its trailer park-dwelling characters and their priorities – but at the same time, it doesn’t offer much in the way of sharp commentary or inspired comical mayhem involving them either. As a result, most of the film’s slapstick comedy and jokes in general tend to come off as more “odd” than inspired (or, when it comes to certain gags, off-putting) and Masterminds‘ efforts to parody famous heist movies like Ocean’s Eleven come off equally flat. There are enough moments of purely random humor included here to elicit a few chuckles from every moviegoer no matter their preference in comedy, but in general even the film’s darker comical elements tend to not leave all that strong an impression, for good or bad.
Similarly, whereas a movie such as Napoleon Dynamite does actually paint a full picture (however off-kilter it may be) of the lives, culture and people of Utah/Idaho, Masterminds offers a thinly-sketched vision of the South – one populated by incomplete caricatures, as well as easy jokes about ’90s fashion and pop culture. For example, were it not for Zach Galifianakis’ wavy hair (and customary beard), there would be little to distinguish the film’s version of David Ghannt from countless other misguided “heroes” who have come before him. Masterminds does attempt to give its story more heart by portraying the relationship between David and Kelly Campbell as being a one-sided crush that gradually evolves into something more meaningful, but Galifianakis and Wiig simply don’t have enough substantial material here to make their characters’ romantic connection all that sweet or charming.
The Masterminds script by Emily Spivey (Saturday Night Live), Chris Bowman and Hubbel Palmer (the latter duo also worked on the short-lived Napoleon Dynamite cartoon TV show) seems designed to showcase its cast’s improv skills above all else. Wiig’s fellow SNL cast members-turned Ghostbusters costars Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon do get their moments to shine as Matt’s fiancee Jandice and FBI Special Agent Scanlon, respectively, but they too are limited by their lack of characterization. Owen Wilson as the conniving Steve Chambers and Jason Sudeikis as an eccentric killer-for-hire are the most fully-realized personalities here, but are very much supporting players here – and as with the other characters in the film, one imagines that their real-life counterparts may have been more interesting by comparison.
On the positive side of things, Masterminds is a bit more polished (in terms of its cinematography and shot selections) than modern mainstream Hollywood comedies have a tendency to be, thanks in part to the efforts of the film’s director of photography, Erik Wilson (Paddington). While the movie’s sequences that blend action with comedy tend to be just serviceable, they do break up the monotony of the film’s comedy approach – making it so that not every scene here is a back-and-forth exchange between characters rattling off verbal jokes. On the other hand, the editing in Masterminds is noticeably choppy at times and suggests that there was a fair amount of footage shot that ended up on the cutting room floor; something that is further suggested by a blooper reel near the end of the film, featuring flubbed versions of moments that didn’t actually make it into the final cut.
Masterminds was first delayed from its original Summer 2015 release date due to the financial woes of its distributor, Relativity Media; unfortunately, its subsequent delay from Fall 2015 to September 2016 is a testament to the quality of the movie, more than anything else. Although not a disaster, Masterminds is a disposable and middling off-kilter heist comedy that squanders its cast’s talents on subpar material. Fans of Jared Hess’ past directorial efforts may get more traction out of the film than others, but even some of them might wind up feeling that for a movie this silly – based on a real-life crime story that is difficult to believe, no less – Masterminds should leave a stronger impression (again, good or bad) than its actually does.
Masterminds is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 94 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, some language and violence.
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