At first glance, “Masterminds” seems like just another “blockbuster comedy,” where the camera sits unenthusiastically—almost angstily—as familiar, overlit faces pass through and improvise outrageously. Depending on the relevancy of the faces, the camera will pan down to reveal the butts associated with those faces, butts that will proceed to fart grandiosely; other times, the camera will draw back and capture these same butts becoming acquainted with the ground in a most painful fashion. It is a foolproof formula—a tradition at this point—and one that “Masterminds” is undoubtedly indebted to. Yet here’s the twist: Jared Hess is the director. Best known for his debut, “Napoleon Dynamite,” Hess has devoted his cinematic career to his cruel fixation on outsiders with diminishing returns. “Masterminds” thus distinguishes itself from the homogeneous glut of mainstream comedies with its eye for awkwardness and absurdity. But the eye doesn’t take it far.
“Masterminds” depicts the 1997 Loomis Fargo Bank Robbery in North Carolina (inspired, the film posits, by the 1997 Loomis Fargo Bank Robbery in Florida), wherein a Loomis Fargo employee named David Ghantt lifted $17 million dollars from a vault at the behest of former coworker (and crush, according to the film) Kelly Campbell and her friend Steve Chambers. Chambers then convinced Ghantt to flee to Mexico to hide until the authorities lost interest, at which point Ghantt would return to collect his share of the spoils. Inevitably, Chambers cut Ghantt out, even sending a hitman named Michael McKinney after him, whom Ghantt improbably befriended before the assassination could occur. Meanwhile, Chambers and his wife spent the money freely, quickly alerting the FBI and winning arrests and convictions for all involved. The robbery became a punchline throughout the nation, earning the name “the hillbilly heist” due to the ineptitude and the hometowns of the co-conspirators.
“Masterminds” zeroes in on the “hillbilly” aspect of the original story, distributing fleeting Southern accents and gauche tastes to its ensemble. The cast consists of some of the funniest actors working today, utilized to varying effect. Zach Galifianakis stars as Ghantt, sporting an impressively pronounced bowl-cut and a perpetually pained smile. Galifianakis can pull off broad comedy effortlessly, a skill which catapulted him to fame in movies like “The Hangover.” Executing pratfalls and delivering oblivious one-liners with aplomb, he consistently strikes Hess’s intended tone, especially with his fumbling advances to Kristen Wiig’s Kelly Campbell, which include kissing her shoulder and letting her carve her number into his arm with a pencil. Yet Galifianakis’s greatest talent is giving such jackassery an edge that brings dynamism to otherwise one-note characters—just listen to Ghantt scream with sarcastic laughter after his fiancée, Jandice, jokes about his weight. Kate McKinnon’s brief time as Jandice is a similar pleasure to watch, her placid creepiness perfectly complementing Galifianakis’s earnest ungainliness; Their stilted engagement photo session, set to the strains of “Only Time” by Enya, is a high point. However, McKinnon’s spell is broken late in the movie by a tiresome brawl with Wiig, which ends with heavy misuse of a vaginal cream.
The fight scene encapsulates the flaws of “Masterminds”: squandering a peerless cast in service of pointless wackiness. Wiig, for instance, is sadly underserved by her role as Campbell; she is far too sharp to be stuck as the mere love interest, whose defining quality is her cleavage and whom the posters for the film tellingly refer to as “The Bait.” Owen Wilson is also miscast as Steve Chambers. Though he adds interesting layers to the character, he seems far too good-natured to convincingly portray a sleazebag. Meanwhile, Jason Sudeikis as hitman Michael McKinney and Leslie Jones as FBI Agent Scanlon steal every scene they’re in, and yet they barely have screen time. Sudeikis, who gets (understandably) pigeonholed as the ultra-likable everyman, clearly relishes the opportunity to play a psychopath; his performance is perhaps the most magnetic in the whole film. Jones, meanwhile, has a monopoly on quips (her evaluation of a picture of Ghantt: “He looks like Kenny Loggins and Kenny Rogers had a baby, and then Kenny G showed up to the birthday, played the flute, and just messed him up”) in a movie where a dialogue that isn’t obviously improvised sounds forced.
Indeed, it seems impossible that the actors are working off a script (written by three people, no less). Oftentimes, the film feels like production consisted of leaving the cameras rolling as the actors improvise in amusing getups, clutching paper napkins on which vague plot points are hastily scrawled. The getups are in fact amusing, and the actors are capable, charismatic improvisers—but it’s all in service of nothing. “Masterminds” makes for a diverting hour and a half, but it comprises little else but dumb, awkward spectacle.