“Masterminds” underwhelms with bland, lazy comedy

Thomas Elrod

"Masterminds” exemplifies the paint-by-numbers filmmaking mentality that has plagued legions of sub-par comedies in recent years.

Jared Hess, of “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Nacho Libre” fame, directs this adaptation of a real 1997 bank robbery and the stranger-than-fiction series of events that followed. Zach Galifianakis stars as the simple but amiable armored truck driver David Ghantt, who is roped into robbing $17 million from his employers by co-worker and would-be flame Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig). Of course, not all is as it seems, and David soon realizes that he has been set up as a scapegoat for the FBI. This setup has promise as a genre-bending heist/action/comedy — promise that “Masterminds” totally squanders on a muddled and boring plot. 

In addition to its poorly executed narrative, “Masterminds” wastes a wealth of acting talent. Kristen Wiig fails to inspire any audience sympathy as the female lead. Leslie Jones is forgettable as the lead FBI agent investigating the heist. Kate McKinnon commits to a bizarre, rigid performance as David’s fiancée, whose vaguely strained relationship with her husband-to-be is never explained. Jason Sudeikis rounds out the cast as Mike McKinney, a hitman too silly to ever feel truly threatening, but too conventional for audiences to really buy into him as a parody of hardened killers.

David and Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson), the leader of the heist crew, are the only two characters that possess an ounce of charisma and screen presence. Galifianikis brings a broad but disarming sweetness to David, while Wilson occasionally comes to life with amusing tangents about the luxuries of various prison systems. However, they aren’t enough to redeem the rest of the cast, let alone the rest of the film.

Much of the blame for the flat performances in “Masterminds” falls on the writing rather than the actors themselves. The film settles for the low-hanging fruit of wacky sight gags and gross-out humor rather than developing jokes of any complexity or cleverness. Instead of traditional comic punchlines or even coherent cringe humor, “Masterminds” resorts to throwing out non-sequiturs at random, as if desperate to remind the audience that, yes, these people are goofy and weird.

Audiences can’t help but make unflattering comparisons between the principal characters of “Masterminds” and those of Hess’s cult classic, “Napoleon Dynamite.” The characters here begin to resemble an out-of-touch executive’s attempt to replicate what made Napoleon, Pedro and Uncle Rico special. Both films attempt to find humor in the awkward quirkiness of their characters, but “Masterminds” lacks the affectionate treatment that made “Napoleon Dynamite” so endearing.

Many comedies have a loose, almost improvisational tone that can work to the benefit or the detriment of the picture. In this case, so many scenes feel ad-libbed that several relationships, character attributes and storylines are too scattershot to possess any consistent structure or ultimate point.

In spite of its flaws, the film does provide a handful of small chuckles across its runtime. Other moments may hit or miss depending on your sense of humor, like when a major conflict is resolved through a spectacularly contrived plot twist that calls to mind the heavy-handed scriptwriting of “Batman v Superman.” 

Ultimately, “Masterminds” isn’t detestable, but it never truly justifies its existence, either. Fittingly, the single genuine laugh-out-loud moment is provided by an outtake during the end credits.

“Masterminds”

  • Rating: PG-13
  • Runtime: 95 minutes
  • Score: 1.5/5 stars