Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 29, 2017)
Of Zach Galifiankis’s two 2016 films, he stretched his legs a little in one. Keeping Up With the Joneses cast Galifianakis as the clear lead character and also made him much more of a “normal guy” instead of his usual “adult child” persona.
Joneses flopped, which may be a sign audiences prefer “wacky Zach” to a more sedate version. Or maybe not, as Masterminds - released a mere three weeks prior to Joneses - tanked at the box office as well.
A cursory look at these two implies more potential for Masterminds, mainly due to the cast. In addition to Galifianakis, the film boasts comedy talents like Kristen Wiig, Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon – how can hilarity fail to result?
Set in 1997, David Ghantt (Galifianakis) drives an armored truck and lives a normal life, but he aspires to a more thrilling existence. He gets his chance when his colleague Kelly Campbell (Wiig) proposes a scheme in which they steal from the company for which they work.
While they manage to pull off the crime, matters don’t go well for David. Along with her ne’er-do-well friend Steve Chambers (Wilson), Kelly absconds with all the money – and leaves David on the hook for the heist, which makes him the target of law enforcement as well as a hitman named Mike McKinney (Sudeikis).
More than 10 years ago, director Jared Hess made a name for himself via 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite, a super-quirky indie comedy that became a left-field hit. I didn’t get that film’s appeal back then and I don’t get it now, as I think Dynamite seems dopey and amateurish.
Masterminds represents Hess’s fourth feature since Dynamite, but it doesn’t demonstrate real growth as a filmmaker. Oh, he enjoys bigger budgets now than he did with his debut, and I do think efforts like Masterminds demonstrate a professional sheen Dynamite lacked, but still, Hess remains a director who values self-conscious quirk over actual comedy.
If anything, Hess has moved closer to “lowest common denominator” humor, as Masterminds firmly embraces tacky gags. Precisely three minutes into the movie, David accidentally shoots himself in the butt, and he declares that the bullet “grazed his biscuits”.
Matters don’t improve after that. Soon thereafter, David complains that his fiancée (Kate McKinnon) “farted right into my butthole!” David also refers to his tuxedo’s “cucumber-bund” and eventually pays for a purchase via money it appears he pulled out of his rear end – with hair attached to the cash and all.
Amazingly, the film’s obsession with the rectal area gets worse from there. Another scene shows David in a pool, where he farts – and more, as a broad range of brown fecal matter spreads across the water.
Who thought this would work? Who figured this would make good comedy? How did Hess sucker so many talented actors into such a puerile affair?
Sure, Galifianakis, Wiig and the others have “gone potty” in the past, but Masterminds embraces the juvenile to such a radical degree that it nearly stuns me. This cast boasts smart, talented people – surely they realized how witless and idiotic the material was.
Of the entire group, only Wilson threatens to emerge unscathed. He gets a few moderately entertaining bits, such as one in which Steve attempts to convince Kelly that David would enjoy federal prison – that bit offers mild amusement.
It also feels like it comes from a different movie, and I’d bet that Wilson wrote the sequence himself. This monologue feels so much like Wilson’s material from other films that I’d guess he went off-script and created the dialogue on his own.
Given the terrible “jokes” found in the rest of the flick, I wish his costars did the same, as they couldn’t help but make the results better. Good comedians can often elevate poor material, but the general crumminess of the Masterminds script hobbles the actors in a way that they can’t overcome.
The basics of the story – based on real events – offer fodder for an entertaining tale, but Masterminds isn’t it. Witless and inane, the movie comes without many redeeming factors.