As is practically never the case in modern film marketing, Masterminds is a comedy that’s far funnier than its trailer initially led me to suspect. For once, some of a movie’s best moments are entirely absent from the trailers, leaving the jokes to stand on their own merit. As has often been true of the films of Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre), the result is a surprising film that’s passable even if it perhaps doesn’t work in its entirety — and is definitely not for everyone. And, as with much of Hess’ work, I like it more than I rationally should. This one is unlikely to find a place among cinema’s greatest comedic achievements, but it does boast enough genuine laughs and “Hey, I know that place!” scenes shot in the Asheville area to warrant a look.
There were plenty of reasons to be apprehensive about this one, primarily the film’s PG-13 rating and its extensively delayed release. Those readers who remember the film’s shooting in and around Asheville in the summer of 2014 or the marketing materials that popped up last year may be wondering why Masterminds has taken so long to come out. The answer is the studio behind this film, Relativity Media, hit hard times in July 2015 and couldn’t afford to effectively market or distribute the movie until its bankruptcy had been resolved. I’m pleased to say the delays had nothing to do with the quality of the film, and the lack of an R rating wasn’t indicative of defanged humor as I had initially feared.
Based on the true story of the 1997 Loomis Fargo robbery in Charlotte, the film’s comedic focus is its ’90s-era trailer park aesthetic and the collection of incomprehensibly inept losers who populate those environs. While the factual details of the case may be funnier than the film at times, the movie does manage to mine its fundamental strangeness for all the laughs it can. This is a hallmark of Hess’ oeuvre — and also one of the pitfalls — as he occasionally skirts the line between sympathetic humor and mocking derision a bit too closely. You’re never quite sure if the director is laughing at or with his characters. But, if you can accept the film at face value, you’ll likely find yourself laughing all the same.
The real draw here is the ensemble cast of comedic heavyweights whose performances are generally strong across the board, often limited only by the material they’ve been given to work with. Owen Wilson seems to think he’s reprising Dignan from 1996’s Bottle Rocket with a frequently faltering southern accent, but his comedic timing carries his few scenes. Jason Sudeikis’ character doesn’t add much value beyond driving the plot forward in the second act, although watching him do his best (meaning bad) Danny McBride impression is entertaining. Kristen Wiig delivers possibly the least objectionable turn I’ve ever seen out of her, and Kate McKinnon steals almost every scene she’s in. But Zach Galifianakis is unquestionably the star of the show, his youth in Wilkesboro predisposing him to play his part almost flawlessly. Galifianakis’ gift for physical comedy is easily the saving grace of this film, which almost certainly would’ve been an exercise in futility without his involvement.
Hess has the prudence and restraint to let the talent he’s assembled do what they do best — and, when it works, it works. The script lacks polish, and the jokes don’t always land. But most of them do, and the Asheville connection is noteworthy in and of itself. It may not amount to a masterpiece, but Masterminds has plenty to recommend it, especially to local audiences. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, some language and violence.
Now playing at Carolina Cinemark, Carmike 10, Regal Biltmore Grande, UA Beaucatcher, Epic of Hendersonville, The Strand Waynesville