Movie Review: “Masterminds” – Can’t Solve The Formula

Written by Jeremiah Greville October 07, 2016

Masterminds 2016 - Kristen Wiig, Zach Galifianakis

Despite all of the accolades and critical reception that dramas receive, even the most ardent dramatists often agree that humour is the more difficult craft. Telling a joke is all about getting a specific reaction. It take a precise formula to create comedy, and it’s even more challenging to perfect it. Comedy classics are what they are because they master that formula, using actors, story, set-up, and timing to deliver precision jokes at comfortable intervals. But like many tricky formulas, you can have all of the ingredients and still come up short. And yes, despite it all, Masterminds falls short too.

Masterminds is based on the true story of the 1997 Loomis Fargo robbery, and follows David Ghantt, a hapless, witless, and relatively hopeless armoured truck driver who commits the second-biggest U.S. cash robbery in history. Ghantt, who was originally set to be played by Jim Carrey, is instead played by Zach Galifianakis, who brings to the role an effete southern accent and a garish wig. At least, dear God in heaven, I hope it’s a wig. He’s joined by Owen Wilson, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Jason Sudeikis, and a criminally-underutilized Leslie Jones. With three of the four new Ghostbusters among the all-star comedy cast, this movie had a lot going for it. Unfortunately, that star power wasn’t enough to replace the depressing lack of humour in the rest of the film.

“You and all your stripper friends!”

While Galifianakis’ performance is grating at times, the failure of the movie doesn’t rest on his shoulders alone. For the most part, he commits to his specific brand of comic buffoonery enough to sell you on his role. In fact, it’s hard to really pinpoint just what went wrong at all in this film—only that it did, and did so spectacularly. There are very few genuine laughs to be had, and even fewer that are actually earned. There’s a heavy, almost depressing tension throughout as you wait for something actually funny, and then keep waiting. Surely, it’ll come. A chuckle, a tee-hee, anything. Surely, you hope, and then keep hoping. But Masterminds fills that dead chasm with thoughtless one-off bits like spider-biting and ‘vagawax’ (both exactly what they sound like). It’s not enough to entertain, and barely enough to divert.

Zach Galifianakis in Masterminds

Owen Wilson and Kate McKinnon seem like transplants from another film. Wilson is completely out of place as a relatively ‘Owen Wilson-ish’ character when he should be an outlandish self-aggrandizing fool. It’s a role that would have been delicious for someone like Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller, or pretty much any other member of the early 2000s Frat Pack of comedic actors. Here, Wilson can’t really sell the Machiavellian bravado or the naïve menace that his character demands, and the film suffers for it. His introduction is noteworthy simply for his presence–he’s easily the most recognizable of the main cast, and has the longest-stretching comedic filmography. But while a big name or a known face are solid foundations for a larger-than-life villain, they’re not enough without a larger-than-life performance. McKinnon, on the other hand, steals scenes just as effectively here as she did earlier this summer in Ghostbusters. There’s not a single moment when she’s not mugging for the camera or going for the joke, and because of it she helps sell one of the film’s earliest (and fewest) funny scenes, a wedding photo montage with Galifianakis. However, just like in Ghostbusters, this means that she’s not really a character–she’s just an impression, a funny face and silly voice. While that same insult could be lobbed at most of the cast here, her performance stands out from the rest by being so foreign to the film and at same time so completely energetic and committed. In fact, while she’s one of the two cast members most out of place in this movie, she’s ALSO one of the two cast members to give the best performances throughout–the other being her always-dependable fellow SNL alumnus Jason Sudeikis.

“Bonnie needs his Clyde”

Sudeikis seems to have the most fun–and is absolutely the most fun to watch–as killer-for-hire Mike McKinney. Like McKinnon, he completely revels in the role he’s given, and turns in a performance that’s equal parts disturbing and kinetic. Sudeikis doesn’t get enough praise for his ability to inhabit a character on screen, and that skill is on display here as he fills each frame with menace and style. When his subplot takes an unusual term with Galifianakis’ Ghantt, Sudeikis’ portrayal becomes even more humorous through subverting those very same traits that made him compelling early on. To put it simply, his subplot is delightful. Whether it’s that Sudeikis seems to understand the material better than his co-stars, or that the character he’s playing is better suited to the kind of comedy this movie is trying to achieve, either way he’s the standout.

Jason Sudeikis and Zach Galifianakis in Masterminds

Despite the fact that this movie disappoints, it seems like everyone in the cast had a good time making it. This film is immensely charming and likeable at times, and practically—almost pathetically—begs you to like it. But even at its best, the film only reaches mediocre. Case in point: there’s a fight between two female characters in the film that doesn’t contain a single shot of a dude smirking, nodding, or shouting “Girl fight!” While it was nice to see a scene without those accompaniments, the noteworthy point here is that I was expecting them throughout. This movie is unsurprisingly bad from the very first scene, and only sometimes surprises by rising to the level of just okay. That’s just not enough these days.

“It’s like a fart transplant”

There are bloopers—yes, actual bloopers—at the end of the movie, and like most bloopers they’re the best part of the film. Their presence almost redeems the whole mess slightly by showing us that the whole thing wasn’t just a cruel joke by awful people. Strangely enough, there are a few deleted scenes among them that hint to a slightly different film. Though I doubt there will be much interest in other cuts—the people who see this movie certainly won’t want to watch it again, and those that haven’t been convinced to watch it at all will probably continue to lead healthy lives filled with smart decisions far away from this waste of time.

My Review: 4/10

Masterminds 2016 Poster

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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