As a filmmaker, Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre) has always taken special delight in turning his actors into mortifying cartoon dorks. As an actor, Zach Galifianakis has played almost nothing but mortifying cartoon dorks. With Masterminds, these cringe-comedy connoisseurs join forces for the first time, and the character they come up with together crosses the line from amusingly pathetic into seriously, detrimentally unappealing. Rocking a bangs-and-mop hairdo that makes him look like a trailer-park medieval prince, Galifianakis is David, an armored-truck driver in North Carolina whose every action marks him as a Darwin Awards contender. Over the course of Masterminds, David grazes his own ass cheeks with a bullet, eats a dead tarantula because someone tells him to, and violently shits himself in a swimming pool. He’s a disgusting dimwit bumpkin who makes Napoleon Dynamite look like Don Draper. Unfortunately for the movie, he’s also our rooting interest and the romantic lead.
Improbably, David is based on a real human being, David Scott Ghantt, who actually agreed to consult on this movie, even after he found out that Zach Galifianakis was going to be playing him. In 1997, Ghantt stole $17.3 million from his employer, Loomis, Fargo & Co.—a haul that amounted, at the time, to the second largest cash robbery in U.S. history. Working for once with a script he didn’t write, Hess turns this yanked-from-Guinness true story into another of his star-powered freak-show picaresques. Masterminds paints David as a clueless patsy who agrees to the crime in order to impress a flirty former coworker, Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig, adding some sweet to go with the sour). Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson), the default brains of the operation, talks our hero into fleeing to Mexico without his share of the money, leaving his coconspirators rich while David takes the rap. (The actual Ghantt more or less agreed to this, too. Maybe Galifianakis’ take isn’t so exaggerated.)
Wilson’s presence here, planning an ill-fated heist, creates unflattering echoes of Bottle Rocket—just the latest ammo to use against a director who’s been labeled a lowbrow Wes Anderson imitator from symmetrical composition one. Hess, to put it kindly, lacks Anderson’s supreme formal control, but the two do share an affinity for prop-based visual gags, and what few good laughs Masterminds scores are of this cosmetic nature: an oversized bowl of taco salad served as a romantic gesture, a CD jacket worn like an iPhone armband, etc. (After making a series of movies that just look and feel like they’re set in the ’90s, the director has a field day with the deeply dated fashions of the era.) But a decade after Napoleon Dynamite, Hess has traded the deadpan shtick of his debut for the kind of insult-and-injury farce that wouldn’t be out of place in a Kevin James production. Often that means topping a dumb, easy joke with a dumber, easier one, as when Hess ends a montage of tacky engagement-photo poses by having David’s unlikable fiancée (Kate McKinnon) fart in his face.
Masterminds leans heavily on its cast of comic ringers—Ken Marino as a yuppie neighbor, Jason Sudeikis as a cavalier hit man, Leslie Jones as an irate federal agent—without giving them anything especially funny to say or do. The real waste, though, is of a true story that didn’t require the Jared Hess treatment. Who needs strained, invented wackiness when you have such bafflingly unused real-life details as Chambers’ wife (played here by Mary Elizabeth Ellis) reportedly asking a bank teller how much money she could deposit without arousing FBI suspicion? Some newspapers condescendingly dubbed the robbery ”The Hillbilly Heist,” but Hess only briefly plays up the class-warfare absurdity of the Chambers family gatecrashing polite society. He’s too busy achieving the usual balance between ruthlessly mocking his rube characters and belatedly, sentimentally celebrating their underdog triumph. Masterminds could have been his Pain & Gain. Instead, it looks like an audition for Happy Madison.