The last decade hasn't been entirely kind to director Jared Hess. Following his breakout success with the indie comedy Napoleon Dynamite, he went on to direct a number of films that ranged from lukewarm (Going the Distance) to downright bad, such as Don Verdean. His latest effort is generally more effective in delivering the laughs, but it still manages to fall short in a number of vital areas. With that in mind, Masterminds is not a masterpiece by any reasonable measure, but its brisk pace and talented comedic ensemble definitely make it Jared Hess' best comedy since _Napoleon Dynamite _- which admittedly is not exactly a very difficult feat for him to pull off.
Masterminds takes real life events -- the legendary 1997 Loomis Fargo cash heist -- and filters them (as well as the people who lived them) through the perpetually bizarre lens that characterizes most Jared Hess films. The movie centers on perpetual loser David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis), who works as a security officer for an armored truck company, but has always dreamed about a life of adventure. When career criminal, Steve (Owen Wilson), sees an easy mark in Ghantt, he recruits Ghantt's former co-worker, Kelly (Kristen Wiig), to seduce the buffoon into robbing his employer of over $17 million with the empty promise that she will run away with him, and provide an escape from his boring, loveless engagement to his fiancée, Jandice (Kate McKinnon). As you can probably already guess, none of these people are true "masterminds," which means pretty much nothing goes according to plan in the end.
This leads to a series of increasingly absurd and unfortunate events that continuously gain momentum like a runaway armored car. Overall, Masterminds is a textbook farce that feels like a combination of Fargo and Napoleon Dynamite, with a dash of MacGruber thrown in for good measure. While the film isn't destined to achieve the cult followings of those three films, it produces enough solid laughs along the way to make it worth at least a single viewing.
The film also maintains the longstanding Jared Hess tradition of presenting audiences with lead characters that aren't exactly likeable. Zach Galifianakis does everything he can with the role of Ghantt, and gets plenty of laughs along the way, but the film can never seem to properly figure out if it wants us to root for him or against him. We want to root for him because he's inherently a good guy, but the script makes him so grating that it becomes difficult after a while -- which is made all the more bizarre when we consider that the real life David Ghantt consulted on the film. The same can be said for Kristen Wiig and Owen Wilson, who are somewhat shortchanged against the outlandish and wacky antics that the movie grants Galifianakis. They aren't bad in their roles, just entirely forgettable.
That being said, although it's clearly David Ghantt's story, and Zach Galifianakis definitely fits well into the role, it's the secondary characters that provide the best moments in Masterminds. Kate McKinnon and Jason Sudeikis both stand out in particular for their respective roles as the near-emotionless Jandice, and psychotic hitman, Mike McKinney. They both bring distinct, yet equally commendable forms of complete derangement to their characters that reinforces the notion that they're two of the best performers to come out of Saturday Night Live in recent years. Without their contributions, the movie wouldn't be nearly as entertaining.
It's also worth noting that Jared Hess does a commendable job of keeping Masterminds moving at an incredibly quick pace. Very little of the film's 96-minute run time is wasted, and just about every single scene is milked for as much awkward comedy as possible. Even when a joke falls flat -- which definitely happens often -- you can rest assured that a scene will throw at least a dozen more quips, jokes, and gags at the audience before the story proceeds.
However, this also presents the film with something of a double-edged sword; Masterminds moves so fast, and is so tight, that its relatively large ensemble often feels somewhat off balance. Jared Hess does a passable job of keeping all of the plates spinning, but certain characters -- such as Leslie Jones' FBI Agent, and Ken Marino's Doug -- often feel like most of their scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. There were times that I actually forgot that certain vital characters were even in the movie at all.
Building off that, for all of the solid material that Masterminds brings to the table, the film is a bit too sophomoric to ever become a comedy classic. Much of this has to do with an over-reliance on lowbrow, gross out humor that definitely elicits a visceral response from the audience, but not in a good way. Over the course of the film, disgusting items are placed in mouths, body hair is extracted, and bodily fluids are excreted, and none of these moments ever garner the intended laughs. If anything, these moments only take away from the legitimately funny character moments and subtle sight gags. Masterminds is an enjoyable, quirky comedy when it embraces the quirk, but it can become unwatchable in the moments that it leans headfirst into gross-out, and it oscillates between those two styles frequently.
Ultimately it seems safe to say that Masterminds isn't destined for the halls of comedy greatness. That being said, it's still a relatively enjoyable farce that stands out in a year when not many strong comedies have hit theaters. Masterminds isn't for everyone -- and it's not trying to be -- but it's definitely worth your time if you pride yourself on having an affinity for the bizarre and absurd.