‘Masterminds’: Film Review

Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson and Kristen Wiig play small-time criminals who stumble into the big leagues in ‘Masterminds,’ a true-crime comedy directed by Jared Hess.

Dumb criminals and their bad ’90s taste are the objects of affectionate ridicule in Masterminds, director Jared Hess’ predictably cartoonish spin on a true story. The real-life farce known as the “hillbilly heist,” one of the largest and most improbable cash hauls in American crime history, unfolds as a scattershot collection of caricatures and gags.

The emphasis on skit-style moments may be miscalculated, but it’s no surprise given the SNL pedigree of a number of castmembers and Lorne Michaels’ involvement as producer. Leads Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis bolster the hit-and-miss story with soulful goofiness. There’s only so much they can do, though, as the movie jumps from one bit to the next, its connective tissue disappointingly thin.

The Bottom Line

Less than masterful, but you’ll laugh.

RELEASE DATE Sep 30, 2016

While those bits do yield some hilarity, the feature’s laugh quotient is modest considering how many comic heavy-hitters are onscreen. But the long-gestating film steps into a void of high-profile comedies and could hustle up some box-office bucks for a post-bankruptcy Relativity, which has rescheduled its release several times.

At its playful best, the screenplay by Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer and Emily Spivey sends up crime-movie clichés with a light touch, and Hess shows uncharacteristic restraint in letting those moments play out without reaching for punchlines. But his main interest, as in previous efforts including Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, is in celebrating his characters’ awkwardness, an approach that can smack of condescension, however unintentional, when there’s so little beneath the nerdy surface.

The chief running joke in Masterminds is the Prince Valiant ’do gamely sported by Galifianakis as David Ghantt, a North Carolina armored truck driver for cash-handling outfit Loomis Fargo. Indifferently engaged to the humorless and aptly named Jandice (Kate McKinnon), he has a thing for co-worker Kelly Campbell (Wiig), the spirited opposite of his wife-to-be. Playing upon David’s obvious feelings for her, Kelly is the perfect lure when her larcenous friend Steve Chambers (Wilson) gets a bright idea, inspired by news of a huge robbery by a Loomis Fargo employee in another state.

The heist itself is funny for how ridiculously flat-footed it is: The action is set to the opposite of a ticking clock, as David single-handedly, and with singular clumsiness, removes $17 million of bank money from his company’s apparently security-free vault. From there the movie splits its time between the very conspicuous consumption of Steve and his wife (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and David’s “adventures” south of the border, where he thinks he’s been sent to lie low, but is actually being hung out to dry.

So, too, is Galifianakis — the Mexico sequences (shot in Puerto Rico) are the film’s broadest, subjecting David to a very public bout of Montezuma’s revenge and putting him mano a mano with an eel. Indignities aside, with his clownish physicality, goody-goody smile and hints of underlying rage, the actor captures the sweet spot between schlemiel and dreamer as David nurses a Bonnie-and-Clyde fantasy with Kelly. Wiig, unfortunately, has less to do as the story proceeds, undercutting the intended impact of her eventual change of heart.

In scenes on both sides of the border, Sudeikis is a thunderbolt of sociopathic lunacy as Mike McKinney, a hit man who proves no sharper than the gang of thieves. Ken Marino is in briefly as Steve’s suspicious neighbor, and Leslie Jones, playing an FBI investigator, is showcased to far better effect than in Ghostbusters — even as the default jokes about her unconventional looks are beyond tired.

Wilson plays it straight as the scheme’s self-declared “Gepetto.” He gives Steve just the right streak of earnest self-importance, though like Wiig’s character, Steve is undernourished by the script. Wilson uses his performance style to great effect when delivering a monologue about why it’s necessary to betray David. Like the diner meeting among the three principals that sets the crime in motion, it’s a terrifically deadpan parody of big-screen tropes and suggests what might have been had the filmmakers dug just a bit deeper.

The most distinctive visual aspect of Masterminds, other than Galifianakis’ pageboy and a few of his ill-conceived disguises, is the tacky palette that the designers use. In keeping with Hess’ overall attitude, the costumes and settings evoke 1997-vintage double-wides and nouveau riche suburban mansions, all with an uncertain mixture of fondness and mockery.

Distributor: Relativity Studios
Production companies: Relativity Studios, Michaels/Goldwyn, Surefire Entertainment Capital
Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, Kristen Wiig, Ken Marino, Jason Sudeikis, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Devin Ratray, Jon Daly, Candace Blanchard
Director: Jared Hess
Screenwriters: Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer, Emily Spivey
Producers: Lorne Michaels, John Goldwyn
Executive producers: Ryan Kavanaugh, Dana Brunetti, Kevin Messick, Jody Hill, Danny R. McBride, Erin David, Joseph Nicholas, Jerry Lasky, Tucker Tooley, Jill Messick, Adam Fields, Andrew Panay, Kenneth L. Halsband, Brent Almond, Brett Dahl, Jared D. Underwood, Andrew C. Robinson
Director of photography: Erik Wilson
Production designer: Clayton Hartley
Costume designer: Sarah Edwards
Editors: David Rennie, Keith Brachmann
Composer: Geoff Zanelli   
Casting: Juel Bestrop

Rated PG-13, 94 minutes