Since Napolean Dynamite in 2004, Jared Hess has continued to follow his own quirky, weirdly comic muse. And power to him. I didn’t initially much like Nacho Libre (2006), but have since had a chance to reevaluate, and have found unexpected pleasures in the world of luchadores. Gentleman Broncos (2009) is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and I absolutely do mean that as a compliment. I haven’t seen Don Verdean yet–it’s on my Netflix DVD queue, and I’ll catch it this week. I looked forward to seeing Masterminds. And was disappointed by how, I don’t know, conventional it was.
Masterminds is basically a caper film. It’s about a mismatched gang pulling off a big robbery. It’s loosely (very loosely) based on an actual event, an armored car driver who robbed his own company. Most caper films, however, emphasize the cleverness of the robbers, their careful plotting and skills, the mechanics of how they pull off the heist. In this one, they’re all dumb, essentially, incredibly stupid. They’re utter dolts. As such, it can feel awfully misanthropic–not that that’s all that unusual for Hess. Napolean Dynamite is punctuated by flashes of misanthropy–the cruelty of the other high school kids, for example. What saves it is the friendship between Napolean and Pedro, and Napolean’s fabulous dance of support and kindness at the end of the film. And, to a lesser extent, the budding, awkward romance between Napolean and Deb. That’s pretty much what saves Masterminds too.
Zach Galiafinakis plays David Ghantt, a driver/security guard for an armored car company. He’s partnered with Kelly (Kristen Wiig), who wears her uniform shirt unbuttoned just that one button more than is strictly needed for comfort’s sake, and he’s completely, permanently, hopelessly smitten. And when she idly mentions, conversationally, her fantasy of robbing the car, he laughs it off, but we can tell, is tempted.
Meanwhile, he’s engaged. To the frozen-smiling Jandice, a marvelous comic creation from Kate McKinnon. And we get one of the real Jared Hess moments in the film; a montage of preposterous engagement photos, with Dave and Jandice striking a series of ridiculous poses. Hess gets tackiness, and relishes it.
Kelly, meanwhile, has fallen in with a criminal gang–they seem to share living space. The leader of this gang is Steve (Owen Wilson), not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but the most forceful of personality. (I think it’s revealing that when Steve and his girlfriend, Michelle (a marvelous Mary Elizabeth Ellis) do come into money, they immediately get braces for their teeth. Straight teeth are their calling card as middle-class. Plus, of course, they overspend for a mansion). Anyway, Kelly is persuaded to persuade David to pull off the robbery, assisted by Steve et al. And amidst some low-rent farcical hijinks, David does exactly that. He’s given a fake ID, with the name of another Steve acquaintance, Mike McKinney (Jason Sudeikis), a professional contract killer. And he’s sent to cool his heels in Mexico, while Steve and Michelle go on a spending spree. And Kelly gets to string David along telephonically, promising to join him down south ‘some time soon.’
Eventually the cops (led by Leslie Jones, who is a comic delight in the role), put together the case against David, and Steve decides he needs David to be gone. So Mike is dispatched to Mexico to bump David off. Sudeikis is suitably menacing as this cartoon sociopath, but when he actually meets David, and sees his (fake) ID, he’s entranced by the fact that there’s this other person in the world with his exact same name and birthday. And David and Mike click, become immediate BFFs.
Meanwhile, Kelly, who was never actually that into David, feels bad over the way Steve’s treating him, and her heart starts to soften. She realizes that this good-hearted criminal schlubb really is completely devoted to her. She’s maybe, possibly, a little won-over.
And that nascent romance, between David and Kelly, becomes the movie’s saving grace. These characters are all very very stupid, and at times the movie feels a bit condescending. And they are caricatures, all of them; cartoons. So does this movie have any humanity to it, the way Napolean Dynamite ultimately did, beyond all the stylization and the terrible food and Uncle Rico’s ridiculousness? Yes. There is a genuine, human connection between David and Kelly. Kristen Wiig pulls it off. Her character is a sexpot manipulator, but she’s not evil, just indolent and, we suspect, a bit contemptuous of men. Under all that, she does have a heart. And without a lot of comedy to play, she walks off with the movie.
It’s a pretty conventional Hollywood comedy, and Galiafinakis’ performance doesn’t wear well. And it’s not quite funny enough to survive the incomparable stupidity of its characters. Having said all that, it does have its moments. I laughed quite a bit, more than I thought I would. And I hope Hess gets better material to work with for his next film.