There’s a pretty good heist story buried underneath the muddled, sloppy mess that is “Masterminds.” After all, the film is based on the true story of the 1997 Loomis Fargo robbery, in which an employee of the armored truck company attempted to make off with nearly $20 million in a daring (and daringly stupid) act of criminal inspiration. Jared Hess’ film, his followup to the critically maligned “Don Verdean,” is so deeply unfunny that it’s probably wise to imagine what could have been. Despite a stacked cast of typically reliable talent, including Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones and Owen Wilson, Hess’ feature is practically anti-comedy, a punishing 94-minute endurance test with nearly zero return.
Despite the zany nature of the story, much of the screenplay (from Emily Spivey, Chris Bowman and Hubbel Palmer) sticks to the facts of the wild tale of the criminally ill-fated David Ghantt (Galifianakis) and his terribly designed and executed plan to bilk his employer out of a tidy sum of cash. In Hess’ film, David is imagined as a perennial loser who is finally inspired to break out of his shell by fellow employee Kelly Campbell (Wiig), a good-natured flirt whose attentions prove so irresistible that David willingly blows up his life to please her. Kelly’s idea — pushed along by her scheming childhood friend Steve (Wilson) — is simple: David will rob Loomis Fargo’s vault and they’ll all slip away with some big time bucks.
You can guess how that all works out.
Hess has long trafficked in characters whose good intentions are clouded by a potent mix of idiocy and naiveté, and that trend continues apace with Galifianakis’ David, a character designed to be pitied, ridiculed and wounded. David doesn’t exist to be laughed with, but laughed at, and much of “Masterminds” is built on mocking the dumb sod, when his most egregious crime is being poor and stupid. Even Galifianakis can’t make much out of the guy, and his best bits involve a handful of cleverly crafted sight gags that barely hinge on what the comedian can bring to the table.
Unsurprisingly, given the frequent disdain the film heaps on its central character, David ends up being the fall guy for Steve and a somewhat cowed Kelly (Wiig, to her credit, actually finds real emotion in her character), shipped off to Mexico to lay low while the situation cools off. (In other words, these people are never going to send him any damn money.) Happy as a gastrointestinally challenged clam, David bides his time down south while Steve leans into his newly wealthy lifestyle and Kelly wrestles with both her burgeoning affection for David and a growing guilt for what she’s done to him. Doesn’t sound too funny, does it?
In trying to make a true story that’s entertaining but essentially unfunny into some kind of slapstick comedy, complete with Jason Sudeikis as the world’s worst hitman and Kate McKinnon attacking Wiig in a discount department story and even a repeated gag about adult braces (why? why not!), “Masterminds” goes for the lowest common denominator at every turn. Its hero is a moron with a terrible haircut. David’s truck has a wooden plank for a door. Someone sharts in a pool. Steve and his wife continually mispronounce the word “conch.” Leslie Jones is referred to as a man. At one point, a Geo is put on monster truck tires. Every gun that enters the frame accidentally goes off. The water in Mexico is bad. Owen Wilson talks fast.
It’s every cheap, fast, loose, pointless joke in the book, and barely any of them can clear a solid laugh. The single best gag in the entire film involves Galifianakis sporting a terrifying set of snake-inspired contact lenses and a bad wig, and even its brief mirth is battered almost instantly back by a scene that sees his character handing a pile of his own body hair to an aghast convenience store clerk. It’s not just that the people who populate “Masterminds” are at the mercy of their own bad decisions and worse judgement, it’s that they’re trapped in a woefully unfunny movie that seems to actively despise them.
Crime doesn’t pay, and in the case of “Masterminds,” neither does comedy.
“Masterminds” opens in theaters on Friday, September 30.