‘Masterminds’ is just a little bit too weird for its own good. That’ll be exactly what makes the proud few who fall for this collection of eccentricity to fall deeply and what will drive everyone else away.
Fair enough. The best comedies tend to be divisive. ‘Masterminds’ is definitely one of the funniest movies I’ve seen this year. It’s also one that I can easily imagine others staring at stone-faced, claiming to see no jokes in it. That’s probably one of the reasons why it spent the last year sitting on a studio shelf awaiting release and why the trailers never quite felt right. Despite all the famous faces on the poster, this flick ain’t for everyone, but that’s exactly what makes it so good.
Loosely based on a true story (about as loose as possible while still being able to retain that descriptor), ‘Masterminds’ is the tale of one of the biggest bank robberies in history, which brought in nearly $17 million. It was executed by some North Carolina bumpkins who are transformed into hysterical cartoon characters here. Zach Galifianakis plays David Ghantt, a security guard with a ridiculous haircut and an even more ridiculous Southern accent. He’s about to wed an absolute monster of passive aggression (Kate McKinnon, way too funny) but falls madly in love with his new partner, Kelly (Kristen Wiig). After Kelly quits, she starts hanging out with a local nogoodnik named Steve (Owen Wilson, oddly) and they hatch a plan to steal that bling-bling. Kelly fake seduces David into doing the job, then ships him off to Mexico. Somehow, she ends up falling for him out of guilt. Meanwhile, Steve goes a bit nutty with his money and decides to hire a killer (Jason Sudeikis) to take out our bearded hero.
In real life, this story was likely melancholically funny at best. In ‘Masterminds’, it plays as a full-on cartoon. Directing duties fell into the hands of Jared Hess, who specializes in deadpan parodies of reality and delivers his funniest film since ‘Napoleon Dynamite’. Galifianakis fits into Hess’ movie world perfectly, more than happy to flaunt any of the absurd 1990s clothing he’s given and deliver a lovingly ludicrous performance with intense commitment. Wiig clearly enjoys her improv games with Galifianakis, and thank god they played them because otherwise her character would have been little more than a pretty face and a plot requirement rather than another goofball in this world.
Sudeikis is unexpectedly perfect as a sleazy hitman with a secret heart, while McKinnon commits to her small part in such an oddly intense manner that she steals every scene. The only mild letdown is Owen Wilson, who is fine but not nearly menacing enough for his part. It should have gone to Danny McBride. Given that both McBride and his writing partner Jody Hill are credited as producers, it probably was intended to be him at one point.
The cast are fantastic and Hess enjoys creating meticulous frames filled with a Goodwill toilet explosion of forgotten ’90s lameness. Like ‘Napoleon Dynamite’, the movie feels funny even when a joke has yet to appear. Unlike ‘Napoleon Dynamite’, Hess let his actors improvise up a storm, which rachets up the laugh count while also leading to a lumpy structure. None of the genre elements in the movie add much. There’s rarely much tension except for anticipating the next laugh. However, Hess allows the story to dip in and out of many dark and strange places even though the tone is primarily absurd.
‘Masterminds’ is a weird one, and goddamn it, that’s what makes it so fun. It’s a small town crime fable blown up to an underground cartoon filled with comedy talents mugging in extra laughs at every corner. This is one of those movies that you can tell was immensely fun to make, and that joy is infectiously passed along through the screen as long as you’re on the creators’ oddball wavelength.