When Relativity Media — the production company/distributor behind Masterminds, the newest vehicle for Zach Galifianakis to do his painfully committed shtick — started getting press, co-founder/co-CEO Ryan Kavanaugh boasted of his secret sauce for success. A proprietary risk-evaluation algorithm that crunched variables such as cast, release date, relative examples in the same genre space, etc., was supposed to take the guesswork out of financing, delivering movies that hit their exact projected gross every time. These productions’ primary directive wasn't to be good: Kavanaugh’s flagship hit was Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
Turns out you can actually be too cynical: Trying to recapture that low-concept Blart magic led to a slate heavy on the miserable likes of The Lazarus Effect, the Total Recall remake and, subsequently, bankruptcy. Following on the heels of this month’s instantly forgotten The Disappointments Room, Masterminds attempts to spearhead Relativity’s big comeback — which is counterintuitive, because it’s a film directed by Jared Hess, best known for the weird and divisive cult objects Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre. While he didn’t write this film, Hess’ fingerprints are all over it, and the results are too loopy for the multiplex.
In 1997, David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis) and some dimwitted confederates pulled off the second-largest cash heist ($17.3 million) in U.S. history up to that point. The facts are concisely outlined on Wikipedia and adhered to in the loosest possible way by the film, whose tone runs with the unkind title the caper earned in the press: “the hillbilly heist.” Lured with the false promise of sex by co-worker Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig), Ghantt is roped into a motley crew of small-time losers led by Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson) and subsequently hung out to dry when things go sour. The main romantic plotline combines two deplorable tropes: the attractive woman who leverages her sexuality to lead good men astray and the “nice guy” who eventually wins her over by just being such a gosh-darn persistent puppy.
Galifianakis leans hard into the part, sporting a wig that Leslie Jones’ FBI agent accurately pegs as making him look like the love child of the two Kennys, Loggins and Rogers. The atemporality is usual for Hess, whose consistent aesthetic is poised somewhere between trailer-park chic and lower-middle-class tackiness: Though Masterminds ostensibly takes place in 1997, hard-working production designers have assembled a nightmare hellscape of leftover detritus from the last century. There are a variety of old Bell telephone booths scattered throughout, and everyone dresses as if they went to a “best of 1985” anti-vintage sale. Frames are often symmetrical, with each prop placed for maximum visibility, like a junkyard parody of Wes Anderson filtered through Sears photography shot by a filmmaker with a major class chip on his shoulder.
Whether Hess loves or condescends to his outcasts is up for debate: The subtext is all about class dispossession, but a movie in which a character is stupid enough to propose a big-time bank robbery so that his gang can make it into the news (“the big show”) is pushing it. Hess’ relationship to Mexican stereotypes is particularly queasy-making: Given Galifianakis’ Hangover associations and the fact that this is made by the man who invited us to Vote for Pedro, it’s strangely inevitable that there’d be a shot of Galifianakis on the lam in Mexico, swaggering in slo-mo in a mariachi outfit with a piñata tucked under his arm.
The film is competent in its framing and editing in a way that most comedies aren’t (compare/contrast with Neighbors 2, which is barely a movie except in the most technical sense) and avoids dead-end-obvious improv. It's also clear that Hess has a long-term aesthetic project he’s into. Whether you find this funny and/or distastefully condescending is perhaps a matter of taste, but nothing in the film is as funny as the question one of the real-life culprits asked a bank teller: “How much can I deposit before you have to report it to the feds? Don’t worry, it is not drug money.”