A film review by Craig J. Koban October 8, 2016


2016, PG-13, 94 mins.


Kristen Wiig as Kelly  /  Owen Wilson as Steve  /  Jason Sudeikis as Mike McKinney  /  Zach Galifianakis as David Ghantt  /  Mary Elizabeth Ellis as Michelle  /  Ken Marino as Doug  /  Kate McKinnon as Jandice  /  Rhoda Griffis as Real Estate Agent  /  Jon Daly as Detective  /  Leslie Jones as Detective

Directed by Jared Hess  /  Written by Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer and Emily Spivey

Generally speaking, movies don't make me ill.  They would have to do something wholly repellent to make me sick to my stomach and want to jump out of my cinema chair and flee for the exit. 

MASTERMINDS contains a moment that elicited such a response. 

I have crippling arachnophobia.  Always have.  Always will.  There's a very brief, but freakishly nightmarish scene in the new fact-based caper comedy MASTERMINDS that had me assuming the fetal position and sucking my thumb.  Zach Galifianakis is given a dead tarantula by Kristen Wiig (don't ask).  Now, I'm petrified of tarantulas, dead or alive.  What happens next, though, traumatized me.  He takes it out of its box, puts it in his mouth, chomps down, and proceeds to chew on it until its guts begin spewing out of his mouth like snot.   

This image will never be erased from my mind.  It's stuck there...forever...and for that I can never forgive MASTERMINDS. 

This is just one example of many vile and disgustingly unfunny scenes that permeates this film, which is - in a cruel and ironically hysterical twist of fate - based on an actual event perpetrated by real human beings.  The film takes its inspiration from one of the largest cash robberies in American history, the 1997 Loomis Fargo Robbery in North Carolina.  $17.3 million was taken from the Loomis Fargo regional office vault by one of its own security officials, working in concert with an ex-employee of the company and a slew of other accomplices.  A subsequent FBI investigation led to eight people being arrested that were directly involved with the crime and sixteen others that indirectly aided the eight.  95% of the money was recovered, leaving roughly $1.5 million left unaccounted for. 



There's great untapped comic potential for a premise such as this, but MASTERMINDS fumbles the ball so repeatedly throughout in terms of garnering our interest and generating sustained laughs that it becomes very easy to mentally check out early on.  The film is a rich smorgasbord of remarkably talented comedic performers that rarely, if ever, are allowed to be gut-bustingly funny throughout this film's watching checking 94 minutes.  Rather disappointingly, MASTERMINDS is directed by Jared Hess, whom previously directed absurdist delights like NAPOLEON DYNAMITE and the underrated NACHO LIBRE.  Hess is a filmmaker that knows how to embrace his films' incomparable level of idiosyncratic weirdness, but the tone of MASTERMINDS is schizophrenic and places too much emphasis on broad farcical laughs and, yes, puerile gutter trash/bodily function humor that squanders the limitless abilities of all the participants involved.   

To say that this film is ever-so-loosely based on the Loomis Fargo Robbery is kind of a laughable understatement in its own right, seeing as just about every character that populates this film never once feels like they occupy any normal plane of reality.  Set in late 1990's Charlotte, North Carolina, MASTERMINDS introduces us to one of the - ahem! - masterminds of the robbery, armored car driver and security man David Ghantt (a desperately unfunny Galifianakis) and to look at the man you have to wonder why any employer looking for qualified professionals to guard millions of dollars worth of money would ever give this bumbling sad sack a job.  Dissatisfied with his state in life, he's coerced by his former colleague (recently fired) Kelly Campbell (Wigg, slumming it big time here) that he's smitten with to help her rob the Loomis Fargo vault, with the help from some of her own accomplices, including her pal Steve Chambers (a mostly bored Owen Wilson). 

After some flirtatious finagling, David is convinced to perpetrate the robbery and miraculously manages to steal the $17 million.  Steve insists on sending David down to Mexico with some of the cash to stay in hiding and preserve the whole gang's cover, to which he agrees, but it becomes clear that Steve wants all the money to himself and wants David out of the picture.  To eliminate any loose ends, Steve hires an assassin (Jason Sudeikis, the least plausibly cast assassin in movie history) to take out David, while Kelly - rattled with guilt - tries to let David know of Steve's nefarious plan. 

MASTERMINDS commits one unpardonable error when it comes to silver screen comedies: it's rarely funny.  It generates some modest chuckles here and there (one amusing subplot involves chronicling the hitman's abysmal first attempt to kill David and how he unexpectedly finds a personal manner of befriending him later) and Hess really knows how to give his comedies a garish visual identity (his films contain some of the worst dressed characters ever committed to celluloid).  The initial wow factor of seeing the film's relative who's-who of comic performers sharing the spotlight here is indeed strong, but once it becomes abundantly clear that Hess displays very little affinity at harnessing them all to their full potential then MASTERMINDS becomes a tedious slog to sit through and endure.  Perhaps its biggest sin is this: No one is likeable here, nor does any command our rooting interest.  What's the point of immersing ourselves in MASTERMINDS if we don't give a hoot about anyone? 

Take David, for instance.  This dude is a walking caricature.  With his shoulder length Jesus-like mane of hair, trailer park trash wardrobe aesthetic, and monumentally dim-witted disposition, Galifianakis and Hess rarely make a case for why this dislikeable loser should capture our attention and sympathy (it's also not really helped that the film elevates Galifianakis to leading man status here, which is a mistake seeing as he's always more effective in supporting roles).  The rest of the cast fares no better, especially Wilson, who seems so visibly bored in the film in a pretty meaty role that you want to reach out to the screen and pinch him to see if he's awake.  Wiig does what she can with an horrendously underwritten role that's frankly beneath her, and, rather surprisingly, she's flanked by two of her GHOSTBUSTERS co-stars in Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, the former that perhaps plays the most grounded character of the bunch as an FBI agent hot on everyone's trail.  McKinnon, on the other hand, is in pure distracting camera mugging mode playing David's domineering fiancé.  She oversells and plays the role like she was inhabiting a serial killer, which makes her more creepy than funny. 

As mentioned and in closing, MASTERMINDS wallows in some putrid gags, like the aforementioned tarantula corpse (shivers) meal and a later moment involving a fight between McKinnon and Wigg that builds up to one pumping vaginal cream into the other's gaping mouth.  The film also plays off of lame Mexico stereotypes and shows David succumbing to explosive diarrhea in a public swimming pool after drinking some local water that looks like urine.  Scenes like this made me lurch in my theatre seat out of self-pitying apathy.  When MASTERMINDS is not igniting my gag reflex it struggles within itself as to what kind of film it wants to be: sometimes it's a broad farce, other times a dark comedy, and then sometimes a social/cultural satire.  I grew dizzy while watching this film pondering what the Coen Brothers could have done with this material.   

It's ultimately telling that MASTERMINDS was made in 2014 and saw its release delayed five times over the course the next two years.  The film hasn't so much been released in cinemas now as it has been pretty unceremoniously abandoned by all involved, especially considering that virtually no one from the cast and crew are doing any press for it.  MASTERMINDS is rather paradoxically named, seeing as very little creative intelligence went into its making. 


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