You Can Almost Feel the Desperation of Everyone Involved With ‘Masterminds’

by J.R. Kinnard

30 September 2016

Jared Hess’s snoozefest is a comedic black hole from which laughter cannot escape.
Zach Galifianakis and Kristen Wiig in Masterminds (2016) 
cover art

Masterminds

Director: Jared Hess
Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig, Owen Wilson, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Jason Sudeikis

(Relativity Media)
Wide: 30 Sep 2016
UK theatrical: TBD
2016

“How can such a funny cast make a movie with absolutely no laughs?” That’s the question you’ll be asking yourself throughout the entirety of Jared Hess’s new snoozefest, Masterminds. It’s almost unfathomable that 2016 could produce a worse comedy than Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, but Masterminds beats that movie up and steals its lunch money.

This movie is worse than unfunny; it’s a comedic black hole from which laughter cannot escape. If the characters from Pain & Gain were too intelligent for your taste, this might be the movie for you. Otherwise, you should avoid this stinker like a State Fair chemical toilet.

To its credit, the premise for Masterminds isn’t terrible. In 1997, the fledgling cash handling company, Loomis Fargo, was robbed of over $35 million by two of its own armored car drivers. The first, Phillip Johnson, cleaned out the truck he was driving for over $18 million. The second, and the inspiration for Masterminds, was a North Carolina bumpkin named David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis), who made off with a cool $17.3 million. “The Hillbilly Heist”, as it came to be known by the locals, involved Ghantt and several co-conspirators who probably couldn’t tie their own shoelaces, let alone coordinate what was technically a bank robbery.

The story begins just prior to the robbery, as David falls under the spell of his sexy new partner, Kelly (Kristen Wiig). They spend their days fantasizing about robbing Loomis, ostensibly, to get back at a system that requires reading and writing for advancement. Our story’s comedic intentions are made clear when David accidentally shoots himself in the butt crack. Saying Masterminds is a monument to potty humor is an insult to both humor and potties.

A pairing of Wiig and Galifianakis has the potential for comic sparks, but the story separates them for much of the film’s running time. In fact, Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Don Verdean) and his screenwriters never give their gifted actors a chance to play off each other. If the success of Judd Apatow and his disciples (chief amongst them, Seth Rogen) has proven anything, it’s that ‘rehearsed’ improvisation can propel an average story to hilarious heights. There’s shockingly little improvisation here, which effectively stifles the creativity of the cast. Wiig gets to improvise a “titillating” striptease in order to provoke a sexual harassment dismissal from her boss, but otherwise, each character is forced to play by the rules of their boring script.

Worse still, there’s a ton of plot bogging down every grudging step of Masterminds. First, we meet Dave’s peculiar fiancée (Kate McKinnon), who seems to be living in some parallel universe to The Stepford Wives. Next, we tangle with the criminal ring leader, Steve (Owen Wilson), who proves that in the land of pinheads, the man with half a brain will be king (you can insert your own Donald Trump joke right here). Leslie Jones plays a no-nonsense detective assigned to the robbery, but she’s given absolutely nothing to work with. Finally, there’s a hitman named Mike (Jason Sudeikis) who enjoys killing his victims with knives so he can feel their life force draining away. Yeah… funny stuff.

None of these wacky characters contribute anything interesting to the proceedings, with the possible exception of Sudeikis. Not only does he deliver the film’s only funny line (which occurs on the last line of dialogue before the closing credits!), his creepy hitman is so jarring—so out of place—that it almost injects some life into this cadaver. Unfortunately, like some kind of comedic blow-up doll, Masterminds is content to just lie on the screen with a stupid look on its face.

You can almost feel the desperation of everyone involved with this film. Galifianakis is game for anything, including eating a dead tarantula (who knew tarantulas were filled with caramel syrup?), and having explosive diarrhea in a public swimming pool (who knew Zach Galifianakis was filled with caramel syrup?). Mostly, he just walks around looking like a reject from the Allman Brothers Band and sounding like Forrest Gump’s understudy.

Poor Kristen Wiig is forced to play second fiddle to her own cleavage. It looks as though she’s waiting for someone to feed her a funny line of dialogue, but it never comes. Owen Wilson’s role could have been played by anyone, as his characteristic smarm is scaled back to the point of non-existence. The producers could have saved big money by casting first-timers in these nondescript roles, sparing such recognizable actors the pain and humiliation of having their talents squandered.

Therein lays the ultimate sin of Masterminds; leveraging the name recognition of gifted comedians for one weekend of profit, rather than depositing this cinematic bolus directly to VOD where it belongs. It’s not a crime to make a terrible movie—it happens all the time and with the best of intentions—but rolling this abysmal film into theaters feels like a cynical bait-and-switch. All of these actors and filmmakers will do better work in the future, but Masterminds won’t be on the top of anyone’s résumé.

Masterminds

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