Director Jared Hess broke out with his 2004 indie comedy Napoleon Dynamite. Although it’s a film that’s entirely devoid of substance and depth, and piles on the quirk in place of a personality, the movie resonated with audiences, going on to gross over $46 million worldwide off a budget of $400,000. Hess’ new film, Masterminds, is like if a vampire sucked all of the inoffensive charm from Napoleon Dynamite, and replaced it with famous actors and a script that has nothing but contempt for its cast of characters, poor people who live in trailer homes.
Based on true events, the film follows armored truck driver David Ghantt (Zack Galifianskis), who falls for his co-worker Kelly (Kristen Wiig). Although Kelly quits the job, her friend Steve (Owen Wilson) convinces her that she should seduce David into pulling off a robbery. David, who’s engaged to the weird Jandice (Kate McKinnon), falls for Kelly’s charms and agrees to be the job’s inside man. After the robbery, he flies to Mexico where he naively believes that Kelly and the money will join him. Instead, Steve sends hitman Mike McKinney (Jason Sudeikis) to kill David and cut off his plan’s loose end.
There’s a lot of scorn for the people in Masterminds, and while entertainment doesn’t have to feature likable characters (just look at the terrific TV series You’re the Worst), they have to be compelling. The characters in Masterminds are neither. Aside from everyone in the movie being a dummy, they’re also selfish, conceited people. David doesn’t give a second thought to cheating on Jandice; Kelly knows she’s just using David’s crush against him; Steve is letting David take the fall for the robbery; and Mike is a murderer who casually carries around a severed ear in a handkerchief. The only upstanding person is an FBI agent played by Leslie Jones, and even her character isn’t that good at her job—the case against Steve pretty much falls in her lap.
Masterminds is content to be either stupid or gross, and yet it’s never funny. It’s a movie that lazily gropes for the nearest gag it can find regardless of whether that joke makes the film any better. For example, at one point, David is in the hotel pool in Mexico, and he sharts, and that’s the joke. The pool fills with shit-colored water, and that’s it. A man poops himself, please laugh. At another point, Jandice and Kelly get into a fight, and Kelly squeezes a tube of vaginal itch cream into Jandice’s mouth. You have Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon, two of the funniest women in comedy today, sharing a scene, and this is what Masterminds comes up with.
I’m a little surprised that Hess treats his characters so poorly, especially since he seemed to sympathize with the economically depressed leads of Napoleon Dynamite. Here, Hess just sees his characters as white trash cartoons, and Masterminds feels cruel as a result. It’s a constantly mean-spirited piece of work that’s an insult to everyone who made it and everyone who watches it.