Directed by Jared Hess
Written by Chris Bowman & Hubbel Palmer and Emily Spivey
Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Kristin Wiig, Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones
Runtime: 94 minutes
Director Jared Hess has a penchant for oddball characters. From his first film, Napoleon Dynamite he’s continuously banked on his character’s innate strangeness to sell his jokes and largely, that has worked. Now he returns to the director’s chair directing someone else’s script (his first director-for-hire job), though it feels like a Hess film through and through because of the utterly peculiar people it profiles.
Masterminds is based on an actual robbery of the Loomis Fargo armored truck service in North Carolina in 1997. it chronicles how Loomis Fargo driver David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis) was duped into stealing $17 million, still one of, if not the largest cash heist in U.S. history. David is shown as a timid thrill seeker, someone who wants action but doesn’t go looking for it, just wishes it would happen to him. He’s engaged to Jandice (Kate McKinnon) who openly admits to settling for him after her true love died. David meets Kelly (Kristin Wiig) at work and is partnered with her. He starts to fall for her because she is, to him, a free spirit. After Kelly quits, her friend Steve (Owen Wilson) gets the idea to rob the place as an inside job. He gets Kelly to convince David to steal the money, with Steve (telling David to call him Geppetto, because he pulls the strings, which leads to a very funny Pinocchio-based interaction) calling the shots. Kelly tells David to hide out in Mexico after the job, promising to follow him soon but never meaning to. Soon Steve starts living large and when David is identified as the thief, the FBI (Leslie Jones) starts looking into Kelly, trying to locate David, so Steve hires a hit man, Mike McKinney (Jason Sudeikis), to kill David and take the pressure off.
This could easily have been an action-adventure film, filled with tense showdowns and impassioned speeches about double-crosses and vengeance and the like, but writers Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer and Emily Spivey turned it into a quirky comedy. They made each character just a touch off balance, David in his absurd naiveté, Kelly in her odd aloofness, Steve’s delusions of grandeur and Mike’s general craziness (he prefers to kill with his hands because he enjoys seeing the life leave his victims. Sounds terrifying when written but hilarious when Sudeikis says it). The biggest trouble with the screenplay is that it relies on too much cliché and coincidence, as well as quite a lot of repetition. Many of the jokes are smile-worthy and a few get genuine laughs, but that doesn’t make up for the weakness of the structure of the script.
Hess utilizes the script to good effect, casting actors known for oddball characterizations. Since his biggest claim to fame is Napoleon Dynamite (though many have a soft spot for Nacho Libre and Blades of Glory), it’s easy to see why he picked this off-beat script to direct. He keeps the film moving and stages some very funny physical comedy as well as knowing how long to keep a scene going while his talented actors riff on the material. The trouble comes when it feels like he uses alternate takes for scenes later in the movie. It gives a feeling of repetition and padding for a movie that doesn’t need it. There is enough material there to have avoided this, but alas, it was not.
Another difficulty is that the cast doesn’t seem to be trying. Everyone is funny, sometimes hilariously so, but no one is branching out for anything they’ve done before. Everyone plays it safe and goes through the motions, providing quirky characters without any real punch. With a group this talented, you’d expect someone to stand out because of a truly interesting performance, but they’re largely phoned in. McKinnon might have stood out if this had come out before Ghostbusters (as it was supposed to, since it was filmed before, but the film was delayed due to the production company going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy). As it is, it feels like a reprisal of her Holtzmann character, kind of disconnected and kooky, though here she’s going for a rural South kind of unaware as opposed to borderline-crazy scientist. The only one that seems to be working is Jones, delivering a credible performance as an FBI agent who is determined to crack this case. She’s funny, but she plays more of a straight-woman to the peculiar people she interacts with and in so doing is like a breath of fresh air for the film. She’s not on screen enough to hold everything together, but when she’s there, the picture works a little better.
Masterminds isn’t the comedy of the year or even probably the fall season, but it does offer some good laughs. Hess is proving himself to be a less melancholy Wes Anderson, though without the fastidious attention to detail and story that Anderson has. The picture is good enough while you’re watching it, but it doesn’t linger and probably won’t stand up to repeat viewings.