There are movies that get made, then sit in storage for years until the studio decides that they may as well release it. Masterminds is an archival film from the distant days of 2014, when Zach Galifianakis was the funniest man alive and Owen Wilson didn’t know how to do an accent. Masterminds combines its archival nature with that perennial classic of frustrating cinema: the movie in search of a title. It settled on Masterminds, escaped into theatres with a couple of laughs, and is destined to be forgotten forever.
In 1997, armoured car driver David Ghantt (Galifianakis, TV’s Baskets) is talked into stealing $17 million from his employers by former coworker Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig, Sausage Party) and ne’er-do-well Steve Chambers (Wilson, Zoolander No. 2). Ghantt absconds to Mexico with a mere $20,000 and gradually realises that not only is Chambers not going to give him more money, he’s going to hire a hitman (Jason Sudeikis, Son of Zorn) to kill him.
Masterminds is based on a true story, but one is inclined to believe that reality wasn’t quite so dumb as all this. The caper aspect of the film is fuelled by Galifianakis and Wilson and, while they have to do the narrative heavy-lifting, it’s neither complex or particularly compelling. Galifianakis is amiable, but much of his character’s humour leans heavily on the anachronisms of a modern audience laughing at the nineties: people sure used pagers and bought CDs back then. Wilson doesn’t do much more than advance the plot, and Sudeikis serves as a repeated form of deus ex machina and strains towards a wackiness that the women of the film actually earn.
The secret weapons of Masterminds, the parts that could be construed as good — although overall, that is not an accurate descriptor of the movie — are the women. Wiig is a strong comedic actress, but she also has a well of vulnerability to draw on that gives her performances more depth than the movies they’re in. She is aided by her fellow Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live players: Kate McKinnon, as Gannt’s wild-eyed fiancée, is the highlight of every scene that she’s in; and Leslie Jones, as an FBI agent, receives the movie’s single best line. That their best work largely reflects character rather than narrative suggests that it may not have been in the actual shooting script.
Writers Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer (TV’s Napoleon Dynamite) and Emily Spivey (TV’s The Last Man at Earth) have cobbled something together that follows the same formula as many other comedies of this ilk — one that almost never works — right down to culminating in a whole lot of explosions and gunfire. Director Jared Hess (Don Verdean) bounces it along, but it never becomes a cohesive, or funny, enough piece to satisfy more than the basest of urges.
There’s a sunny type of comedy that tries to pretend that it doesn’t have to aspire to a higher purpose, like telling a tightly composed story, or being funny. Masterminds has more joys than your average anaemic comedy, but none of them justify the time invested in going to the cinema.
Masterminds opened in Australian cinemas on October 13, 2015.
Directed by: Jared Hess.
Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones and Jason Sudeikis.