MASTERMINDS Review

The best thing one can say about Masterminds is that it seemingly accomplishes what it sets out to do and be. Of course, that's a pretty solid compliment if you're going for a certain type of quirky/oddball comedy that not everyone will understand or even care to understand. It has always felt as if director Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre) has marched to the beat of a slightly different drum than any other comedy director and that continues to show in his feature films as he documents characters that are interesting or strange because of the inherent state of their personality rather than documenting the actions of fairly average individuals who are put into extraordinary circumstances. That isn't to say the ensemble cast of Masterminds don't find themselves in the middle of some pretty spectacular circumstances because they do, but this is due to the fact they voluntarily sign up for crazy expeditions rather than them being thrust upon them. Now, this isn't original to Hess' films of course; plenty of comedies find humor in the eccentric and the zany, but Hess notches it up a few levels-making his films feel as if they are operating not in the real world, but from the perspective of these bizarre minds that allow us to see the world how they see it: in unconventional and bizarre ways. This is especially glaring in Masterminds as it reminds us time and time again that what is happening is based on a true story that occurred in 1997 and at the time, was the second-largest all-cash robbery in U.S. history. As with most "based on a true story" movies the film version of these events takes the real life events and paints them in broad strokes though it at least seems that writers Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer, and Emily Spivey have kept the general facts of the case intact enough while interpreting those actions to inform character decisions that give way to the more outlandish tone the film sports. Of course, how are we to know that what we're treated to in Masterminds isn't exactly how the real David Ghantt perceived things to be during these time in his life? The point is-it doesn't matter. Whether they were or not I can appreciate that Hess takes on a certain singular style and approach and applies it to every scene making what was already a fascinating story that much more enjoyable...if you enjoy Hess' particular brand of nonsense, that is.

Steve (Owen Wilson) and Michelle Chambers (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) go on a shopping spree after obtaining some new-found wealth.
Zach Galifianakis is one of the rare comedians that is almost guaranteed to make me laugh any time he tries out a bit. It's as if he can't help but to be humorous about anything and everything or with anyone he encounters. As Ghantt, Galifianakis is a simple southern man who doesn't have many aspirations in life, but seems tired of such a lack in ambition. At the time Ghantt decided to participate in the heist of his employer, Loomis Fargo, in real life he was a married man who told his wife nothing of his plan to steal the money and flee to Mexico, but in the film version Bowman, Palmer, and Spivey use this supporting character to reinforce just how pathetic a point Ghantt had reached in his life. Engaged to Jandice (an appropriately peculiar Kate McKinnon) for reasons that you think you might see coming when the joke starts, but are twisted enough to make even the most cynical among your friends crack a smirk we are given more than enough reason as to why Ghantt feels the need to escape his current surroundings and is willing to go to the lengths he does to make such change happen. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Ghantt has something of a crush of his former co-worker, Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig), and that it is on the promise that Campbell will eventually join him in Mexico that Ghantt ultimately decides to go through with the plan to rob Loomis. What Ghantt isn't so sure about is the man behind the scenes pulling the strings who calls himself “Geppetto” for those very reasons. We come to know Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson) as something of a low-rent mob boss whose henchmen consist of Runny (Devin Ratray) and Eric (Ross Kimball) and whose wife (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and kids (Karsten Friske and Dallas Edwards) are perfectly Hess-like. Both of the children look as if they could grow up to be either Napoleon or Nacho and as Chambers makes his home base out of an elevated double-wide one can imagine the depths of his scheme. It is after Chambers coaxes Campbell into convincing Ghantt to rob Loomis Fargo and Ghantt somehow pulling it off (somewhat) successfully that the real hijinks begin as Ghantt waits patiently for his new love to join him while Chambers decides it best to cut Ghantt out of the equation by hiring hit man McKinney (Jason Sudeikis) to take him out.

Though Masterminds won't exactly register as memorable one can see how, with repeated viewings, it stands the chance of becoming something of a favorite among cult comedies. It has the right amount of goofiness in each of the individual characters while being paired with a genuinely creative visual sense that allows for nearly every frame to pop. From the set decoration down to the wardrobe everything feels insanely specific to not only serve as something of a sight gag, but to also reiterate aspects of characters that don't need to be conveyed through dialogue when a facial hair or interior design choice tells us all we need to know. And it should be noted that the sight gags are something else in this movie as Hess funnels more of them through Galifianakis' Ghantt than anyone else. Whether it be the comedian dressed in sweatpants and a wife beater sporting a long blonde wig and cat-eye contacts that make him look like Jesus and an Exotic Persian feline had a baby or loud island shirts with a curly, stark black wig where he resembles Gene Shalit there are countless ways in which Hess and his leading man mean to elicit just as many laughs from the visual prowess of this world as seen through the eyes of David Ghantt as they do the one-liners provided by Bowman, Palmer, and Spivey. To be fair, there are plenty of solid one-liners as well and while many such instances that made me take to jotting in my notepad a favorite joke, insult, or attempt at charm might have been improvised it is the writers who come to get a fair amount of credit here as crafting a cohesive narrative from true life events that include factors likely influenced by things that have no reason to belong in a ninety minute feature is a difficult task, but Bowman, Palmer, and Spivey as well as editors Keith Brachmann and David Rennie (who also worked together on the upcoming Keeping Up with the Joneses also starring Galifianakis) do a fine job of keeping a throughline in theme, tone, and character arcs throughout. That isn't to say there is anything fantastic or necessarily exceptional about what is going on within Masterminds, but it is a capable comedy that is both consistent with its laughs and creative in its approach to the material it has to work with. In short, while it may not have the immediate air of "cool" that comedies typically need to enlist the re-watchability factor it is just bizarre enough to keep curious viewers from staying away too long.

David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis) and lover Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig) seek revenge on Mr. Chambers for his double-crossing.
Much will be made out of the fact Masterminds was delayed over a year due to its studio, Relativity, filing for bankruptcy and this being its second release since emerging from said bankruptcy. While there was clearly an effort from the studio to promote and sell this all-star comedy with a dream roster of comedic talent things ultimately were too little too late. Personally, I hate that studio issues and delays that have nothing to do with budget/production issues or the general quality of the picture will have an effect on the perceived quality of the film, but it can't help but seem that because of these things Masterminds was largely dismissed before it was ever screened. Given the fact Hess hasn't had much success critically or commercially for a decade certainly doesn't help prospects either, but when it comes down to purely evaluating the product and not considering any outside influences this is a fine enough comedy that, while not necessarily being distinctive enough to stand out in my memory for longer than a week or so, is at its core-pretty funny. I wish that result were different as Hess certainly still has the potential to craft something truly unique with his odd comedic tendencies and specific style that meshes the visual flairs of Wes Anderson with the energy of a Looney Tunes cartoon, but Masterminds (the first film the director has made where he didn't also write the script) isn't his magnum opus.

All of that taken into consideration, there is plenty to enjoy with Masterminds as the cast is more than game and each bring something worth laughing at to the table. Galifianakis smothers on the southern accent to make his David Ghantt just enough of an oddball to be completely endearing. We like David despite his misguided efforts to get the girl by robbing a bank and we root for him largely due to the fact Galifianakis makes him so damn humble if not somewhat ignorant to the actual dangers of the situations he puts himself in. As the girl who baits Ghantt into the crime Wiig is as sexed up as she's ever been, but given the silliness of the tone Wiig is able to expertly balance her daffier persona with that of the genuine emotional arc her character has to take. And while Sudeikis and McKinnon aren't hardly given enough to do considering what they can bring to the table this might be Wilson's most invested performance in some time. In a scene where Chambers convinces Campbell to turn Ghantt into the police one can see the glimmer of comedic motivation in the actors eyes once again-it's as if we're back in 2004-it's vintage Owen Wilson. Leslie Jones also has a nice little bit of chemistry with the films real MVP, Jon Daly, as a couple of FBI agents that like to play up every aspect of their often imitated duties. Masterminds, like its characters, is something of an oddity that knows it wants more out of its existence, but isn't quite sure what that more is. And so, it bumbles around in funny and sometimes compelling ways before giving in to a too by-the-numbers conclusion that force it to revert back to what I hoped it wouldn't be: more or less what I expected.