Masterminds (United States, 2016)

September 30, 2016
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Masterminds Poster

With relatively little fanfare and even less publicity, Masterminds is finally seeing the light of day. After slipping five release dates (it was originally slated to open in August 2015) and being accorded almost no marketing push, the caper comedy is stumbling into a weak late-September field with the hope that someone will notice. Sadly, the finished product isn’t worth the wait. A stale Saturday Night Live movie (Lorne Michaels produces) with too few laughs and too much padding, Masterminds finds plenty of targets for its satirical jabs and lets them all off the hook. As ambitious as the project might have been in conception, the execution is lazy, making it apparent that the only reason this reached theaters instead of going direct-to-video is because it features several A-list stars.

Take away Kristen Wiig, and Masterminds offers nothing. She is by far the best thing about the movie and easily outshines her SNL compatriots Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Jason Sudeikis. More importantly, she eclipses the oddly dim lights of Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis, neither of whom is in top form. Wilson seems bored and Galifianakis never gets his footing. Part of the problem is that the hairy comedic actor, whose manic mannerisms made him effective in The Hangover installments, is not a leading man. Nevertheless, he’s asked to step to the fore in Masterminds - a colossal miscalculation. Wiig, who is good and funny in her role, isn’t in nearly enough of the movie to save it.

The story is loosely based on the 1997 Loomis Fargo robbery in Charlotte, North Carolina. Armored car driver David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis), with the connivance of former co-worker Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig) and her friend, Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson), steals approximately $17M from the vault where it’s temporarily stored. As the “face of the robbery,” he is forced to flee to Mexico while Kelly and Steve continue living their lives as normal. Steve, however, has every intention of (permanently) cutting ties with David and hires a hitman (Jason Sudeikis) to eliminate to enable that. The lack of aptitude shown by the criminals (the movie’s title is sarcastic) makes them easily uncovered by the FBI agents who don’t have to do much to build an airtight case.

There’s no shortage of caper comedies (one of the best being Big Deal on Madonna Street) and one quality the successful ones have in common is that they expend as much time and effort on the crime as they do on the jokes. That’s not the case here, where the theft is a throw-away plot element. That might be forgivable if the humor was more full-bodied but Masterminds struggles to do more than deliver a few widely-spaced chuckles. It’s not entirely devoid of comedy but this cast should be able to generate more laughter than it does. A scene with Jason Sudeikis’ Mike McKinney is emblematic of the problem. After being introduced as a badass killer-for-hire, he buys an ancient rifle because its antiquity appeals to him. Then, when he tries to use it to murder his quarry, it blows up in his face. That’s funny. What follows, including the unlikely bonding of hitman and victim, is simply boring. Masterminds is replete with such moments - promising introductions that lead nowhere. Far too many good satirical opportunities are ignored. Instead, we’re left with the tired tale of a guy we don’t care about on the lam. Filler is fine until it becomes the entire movie.

In the end, the central problems are David Ghannt and Galifianakis. The movie is built around this character and he’s presented as a sad-sack loser who has trouble capturing our attention, never mind our sympathy. Although Galifianakis’s performance isn’t conducive to getting an audience on David’s side, he isn’t done any favors by the uneven screenplay, which tries to force broad physical comedy into scenes where it doesn’t fit. Masterminds is an awkward and unappealing mix of mismatched parts that doesn’t generate enough laughs to make it feel like anything other than a waste of 90 minutes.

Masterminds (United States, 2016)

Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 2016-09-30
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Content)
Genre: Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1