Masterminds (2016)

by - September 30th, 2016 - Movie Reviews


Snarky Masterminds an Absurdist Satire

In the summer of 1997, longtime Loomis Fargo armored truck driver David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis) is convinced by his ex-partner Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig) to help her childhood friend Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson) rob his employer blind. Unhappily engaged to the mentally imbalanced Jandice (Kate McKinnon), head over heels infatuated with Kelly, the good-natured, far too trusting everyman agrees to participate in the crime, becoming the key component in a theft that nets the conspirators a cool $17 million in stolen cash.

PHOTO: Relativity Media

PHOTO: Relativity Media

Thing is, Steve has no intention of sharing any of the ill-gotten gains. He has Kelly convince David he needs to go hide out in Mexico, promising to send his cut of the take down to him after the heat dies down. But that’s not what Steve is going to do. Instead, he’s going to call the Mexican authorities and attempt to turn his clueless compatriot in. When that doesn’t work, he hires a particularly bloodthirsty hitman (Jason Sudeikis) to do David in, certain in his belief that with him dead and gone the FBI agents (Leslie Jones, Jon Daly) investigating the case won’t be able to discover his identity.

Masterminds is like a “Saturday Night Live” remake of Fargo only as seen through the same cockeyed point-of-view director Jared Hess brought to his surprise hit 2004 debut Napoleon Dynamite. It’s messy and unfocused, its satire never as pointed or as effective as it should be, while its more absurdist comedic beats are portrayed with such tongue-in-cheek certainty the laughs they generate aren’t exactly massive. But with a cast this strong there’s still plenty about this effort to applaud, and admittedly I spent much of the film’s 90 or so minutes grinning ear-to-ear, the crazed ridiculousness of it all winning me over more often than not.

Based on a true story, the largest cash heist in U.S. history, in fact, how much of Chris Bowman (Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life), Hubbel Palmer (Humble Pie) and Emily Spivey’s (“King of the Hill,” “Saturday Night Live”) screenplay and story follows the actual tale I do not know. What I will say is that the trio have certainly done their Joel and Ethan Coen homework, elements of Blood Simple, Burn After Reading, Raising Arizona as well as the aforementioned Fargo obvious throughout. They play up the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction angle throughout, the inherent lunacy of the tale largely speaking for itself.

Hess, however, is no Coen brother, and while I liked how he tried to ground things in a weird, surrealistic form of rural Mid-American practicality, he never is able to straddle the line between comedy, satire and drama as cleanly or as clearly as I kept feeling he wanted to. There’s no edge, nor deeper potency, and in the middle of a Presidential election cycle where many of the issues at the center of the political discourse are decidedly front and center here, the fact Hess fails to connect all the dots in a meaningful way is deeply disappointing to be sure.

Thankfully, the cast is willing to do just about anything for a laugh, and even if they’re not all utilized as well as they arguably could have been (Jones and McKinnon in particular), each and every one of them still manages to have at least one moment that’s good for a solid chuckle or guffaw. Galifianakis is surprisingly decent, and while he’s not exactly stretching himself (his version of David is basically just a kinder, gentler version of Alan from The Hangover trilogy), the actor still manages to tap into the character’s inner workings in a way that is oddly effective. More than that, he has striking chemistry with Wiig, the pair’s blossoming romantic longings growing in authentic potency as the story progresses.

PHOTO: Relativity Media

PHOTO: Relativity Media

The real scene-stealers, however, are Sudeikis and Wilson. The former gets to go a little darker than he usually gets the opportunity here, his happily merciless killer taking carnivorous joy in his work, especially if it allows him to get his hands literally bloody. As for Wilson, he’s in full Wes Anderson mode here, and comparisons to the character he played in the pair’s classic 1996 debut Bottle Rocket have to be intentional. It’s a marvelous, snidely obnoxious performance, Steve’s smarmy certainty in his own intellectual superiority, as wrong as it might be, a constant source of hilarity whenever this imbecilic know-it-all makes an appearance.

It’s impossible not to wonder what might have been if the Coens or Anderson might had directed instead; their sensibilities matched so closely to the vibe the script appears to be going out of its way to generate, Hess’ inability to do so is frustratingly noticeable all the way through. Still, Masterminds has moments of hilarity I simply cannot dismiss, and while the movie itself failed to steal my heart it managed to abscond with just enough of my affection I’d be tempted to give it a second look at some point in the not so distant future.

Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)