The long-delayed (due to Relativity Media’s financial woes) new film from director Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, Gentleman Broncos) turns out to be a surprisingly moving love story couched in a bizarre heist film that had me laughing at some truly dark and twisted behavior on the part of just about every character on screen. Masterminds is the story of the 1997 bank robbery that turned out to the be largest in American history—$17 million—and perpetrated (at least according to this film) by idiots, beginning with David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis), an armored car driver who falls in love with co-worker Kelly (Kristen Wiig), despite being engaged.
Although based on a true story, I’m not sure Hess expects us to take every fact laid out in this film as gospel. With his shaggy bowl haircut and self-described “womanly hips,” Galifianakis’ David is hardly leading man material. But he is a genuinely sweet man who is soon to marry Jandice (the always funny Kate McKinnon, in full, wide-eyed weirdo mode), who doesn’t seem to really love him. But as co-workers and delivery partners, Kelly and David hit it off instantly, and they begin to speculate what they would do with a million dollars. She leaves her job and gets hooked into a criminal gang led by a man named Steve (Owen Wilson) who wants to her recruit David to be their inside man for his plan of stealing millions of dollars from the armored car company she used to work for.
Baited with promises of running away to Mexico or Rio with Kelly, David agrees to pull off the job. As much of a caricature as David might seem at first, Galifianakis has crafted a sympathetic character that discovers untapped ambition and charm when confronted with something he might actually care about. Wiig’s Kelly is not a bad person. In fact, she does seem to harbor some feelings for this patsy, which strongly emerge when Steve decides to hire an assassin (Jason Sudeikis) to eliminate David.
Some of the most interesting moments in Masterminds come in the second half of the film, when we see how the various criminal parties end up after the heist. Kelly lays low. David is given a few thousand to hide out in Mexico until his cut of the loot can be sent to him. Steve and his wife go a bit money crazy, buying a mansion, cars, clothes and other things that they probably shouldn’t be for fear of calling attention to their spending habit. Admittedly, the post-heist portion of the movie is less cohesive than the set up, but it’s within these more scattered moments the quirky love story unexpectedly emerges and Kelly actively attempts to protect David from any further harm.
Also in the supporting cast is Leslie Jones as an FBI agent attempting to locate David. If you’re keeping count, Masterminds has three-quarters of the new Ghostbusters in its cast, which is probably why the distributor waited until after that film’s release to put this one out, hoping to capitalize on Ghostbusters’ popularity. Masterminds is not for all tastes, but for a Jared Hess film, it’s fairly accessible for most ages (it has a PG-13 rating) and most of the time, it’s quite amusing, with occasional bouts of hilarious. I try to keep my expectations of a film out of my mind as I’m watching it for the first time, but I’ll admit, I was expecting something far less enjoyable out of this one, and I left pleasantly surprised. I could have done without the AC/DC music as a means to contrast the rather bumpkin-esque ways of these characters (we get it: these people don’t deserve a rousing soundtrack, so let’s give them one anyway). Not a rousing recommendation, but if you need a few harmless, slight twisted laughs, this should act as cinematic comfort food.