Written by Chris Bowman & Hubbel Palmer, and Emily Spivey
Directed by Jared Hess
It’s 1997 in North Carolina, and Loomis Fargo armored truck driver David Ghant (Zach Galifianakis) is about to be married but developing a crush on his fellow driver Kelly (Kristen Wiig). Kelly’s friend and ex-con Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson) convinces her to use this infatuation as a means to have David rob Loomis Fargo for them. David goes along and ends up absconding with $17 million dollars in cash, the largest robbery in American history. They dupe dumb David into hiding out in Mexico with plans to turn him in a while blowing as much money as they can. But through a series of coincidence and dumb luck, David ends up with the upper hand.
Masterminds is such a stupid movie and in none of the ways that could be perceived as good. Director Jared Hess made his mark thirteen years ago with his debut film Napoleon Dynamite. Since then he’s directed Nacho Libre, Gentleman Broncos, Don Verdean, and now Masterminds. One major thing to note, there is a six-year gap between Broncos and Verdean, the largest gap between films for Hess. This is important because Gentleman Broncos was a somewhat stylish, visually appealing film. It is still stupid as hell with painfully flat characters. What I have found happened in that six-year gap is that Hess appears to have lost even the visual flair which once made his mediocre films at least interesting to look at.
I was shocked at how visually bland Masterminds is. Hess attempts a few flourishes: Ghant’s page boy haircut, the photoshoot between Ghant and his fiancee (Kate McKinnon), some of the costumes. But overall, the looks of Masterminds comes across as very generic and uninteresting. So without those aesthetic distractions, the poor comedy writing comes across even stronger to the point that the film becomes painful to watch. There’s a large number of physical comedy bits that rely way too much on the pudgy body shape of Galifianakis and seem like they would be more at home in a Nickelodeon-produced kids movie. I think this is why Hess was such a good fit for Nacho Libre, but not necessarily a director who is going to appeal to an adult audience.
In the acting department, you have some players here who have excellent credentials. But in this film, they come across as amateurish. The one standout and she is an actress I haven’t enjoyed the work of much, is Kate McKinnon. Her weird acting choices are about the only thing that feels at home in a Hess film, and it works. This is possibly because she is a supporting character and so we don’t get annoyed and tired of her. The rest of the three stars of the film are constantly on screen reminding us how bad this picture really is.
The most glaring problem Masterminds highlights, especially when you do a survey of his previous work as well, is that he seems to actively look down at the poor and uneducated. The joke of the characters in Masterminds doesn’t come from situations, rather that the people are so stupid and weird so we laugh at them for these traits. There has always been an element of classism in Hess’ work that has been played off as goofy nostalgia for the 1990s. With this movie, it feels much more mean spirited than its presentation in Napoleon Dynamite and harder to play off as silly fun.
Masterminds stands as yet another example that Jared Hess has received far too much work for a director who is not altogether that talented. Tim & Eric have employed a similar retro-90s comedy aesthetic to much better results and comedy. I also have to wonder how Galifianakis, who co-created the much more endearing examination of lower middle-class families in Baskets, feels about the final product. I’ll give the actors the benefit of the doubt that they may have not known what these would be like when assembled. Overall, this is a movie that feels like a tired retread of much better films.