Robbing in Terrible Taste Case File #137/My Year of Flops II #34: Masterminds (2016)
When I saw a preview screening of Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite back in 2004 it had not yet been released theatrically but it was nevertheless already on its way to becoming one of the biggest, most unexpected sleepers of the decade. The high school comedy about the titular outcast came out of nowhere and rocked Sundance. The buzz was deafening. People were losing their shit over Napoleon Dynamite. It was instantly iconic, an eminently quotable pop culture phenomenon destined for boffo box-office and a place high in the pantheon of American cult films.
I was excited! I was pumped. I wanted very much for the movie to live up to the hype, to be just as funny and weird and irresistible as the buzz angrily insisted. But right off the bat I was not digging what Hess was bringing. Five minutes in, I was thinking, “Yeah, this isn’t really doing it for me.” A half hour later, my opinion had shifted to, “This is is very much not my cup of tea.”
By the end of the film, however, I was very strongly in the camp of not liking Napoleon Dynamite at all and never wanting to revisit it ever again.
What bothered me most about Napoleon Dynamite, even more than it being a comedy that never made me laugh, was the overwhelming air of class-based condescension and disdain. Hess’ comedic philosophy back in the Napoleon Dynamite days seemed to be that poor people exist, and that in itself is gut-busting, and they’re tacky and dumb but don’t know it and that is not only inherently hilarious, but enough to build an entire filmmaking career upon.
Now I just want to point out that it’s okay to like a movie. It’s okay to love a movie the way Napoleon Dynamite cultists love it. I get it, I really do. So if your entire personality is based on Napoleon Dynamite more power to you. If you have the title character tattooed on your neck, hey, I admire your devotion. In this sick and sad and crazy world of ours you can’t really condemn or dismiss anything that gives people joy that doesn’t hurt anyone. If you want to kidnap Jon Heder and force him to star in your Napoleon Dynamite sequel at gunpoint, well, that’s honestly taking things way too far but if you love Napoleon Dynamite, good for you. I really mean that.
I appreciate why people dig Napoleon Dynamite. I am #notafan but it’s unmistakably the work of a true auteur. Hess has an unmistakable aesthetic and sensibility. It just happens to be one that I kind of fucking hate even as I can appreciate him on an intellectual and cinematic level. It just doesn’t do anything for me personally.
But I am nothing if not diligent so even though I kind of hated Hess’ best loved and most successful motion picture, his masterpiece, as it were, I nevertheless felt obligated to see every other movie he made to make sure that I continued to hate Hess’ cinematic vision and the muddled, airless, largely laugh-free comedies of awkwardness and bad taste it produced.
The 2006 wrestling comedy Nacho Libre did nothing for me but it was a goddamned masterpiece compared to 2009’s even more disastrous Gentleman Broncos, which was distinguished only by a majestic performance by the great Jemaine Clement as an arrogant science fiction writer who steals material from a fan.
It’s a testament to what a brilliant performer Clement is that he manages to be legitimately funny and memorable in dry, barren comic deserts like Gentleman Broncos and Hess’ similarly underwhelming 2015 biblical archeology comedy Don Verdean.
Yet I held out hope for 2016’s Masterminds all the same.
I’m a big fan of Danny McBride and Jody Hill, both of whom were credited as screenwriters at various points in the film’s tortured, drawn-out production and release but it was re-written so extensively that neither man has screenplay credits on the final film, although they do both have Executive Producer credits. Masterminds was an unusual project for Hess in other ways as well. It’s the only film he’s directed that he did not also write or co-write and it sees him working with huge movie stars like Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson and Kristen Wiig as well as three-quarters of the leads from the female reboot of Ghostbusters: the aforementioned Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones in addition to fellow Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudeikis, The State’s Ken Marino and Kroll Show’s Jon Daly.
Based on an outrageous true story and produced by comedy king-maker Lorne Michaels (It’s Pat), Masterminds must have looked like a slick shift towards the mainstream from a funky independent auteur but the film’s release date was pushed back a year. When Masterminds was finally released the reviews were scathing and the box-office paltry; despite the voluminous star-power in front of the camera and behind it, the heist comedy debuted in sixth place and grossed than less than twenty million dollars domestically.
Anyone familiar with Hess’ oeuvre will realize immediately that Masterminds’ title is bitterly ironic. Masterminds do not exist in Hess’ world, only idiots, morons, mouth-breathers, dullards, half-wits and doomed schemers.
Galifianakis plays one of those agreeable half-wits, an armored car driver with the world’s worst Prince Valiant haircut named David Scott Ghantt who is engaged to perpetually zonked-out trailer home dweller Jandice (Kate McKinnon) despite nursing a huge crush on Kelly Campbell (Wiig), a free spirited coworker who I fired for being just a little too much of a character.
The wonderful McKinnon is so perversely ill-served by the material that her big moment involves Wiig’s Wal-Mart femme fatale spurting vaginal cream into her mouth during an all-out catfight at the big box store where Jandice works. McKinnon deserves better than that. Everyone deserves better than that but if you sign on to appear in a Jared Hess motion picture you just have to accept that there’s a pretty good chance your big bit of physical business will involve getting a mouth full of unwanted vagina cream shortly after delivering a monologue about how important it is to use a good vaginal medicated cream to keep from getting a urinary tract infection while wearing a cheap thong.
Like previous Hess comedies, Masterminds doubles as a gaudy living museum of bad taste and hideous fashion. The period piece takes place in 1997 yet the big, ugly hair, eye-meltingly hideous fashions and home decor of the damned all seem to belong to an earlier, even tackier era.
In Hess’ world it’s always 1985 and stone-washed jeans, bangs, feathered hair and wood paneling never went out of style, possibly because they were never in style except for the tacky, oblivious cartoons of working-class bad taste that populate Hess’ movies.
Our clueless protagonist is infatuated with Kelly, who is everything his glassy-eyed fiancé is not, so he proves an easy mark when Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson), a small-time criminal with big dreams, decides to use the lovelorn armored car driver’s crush on Kelly to manipulate him into pulling one of the biggest thefts of cash in American history.
The lovesick criminal inexplicably gets away with the crime despite his near total incompetency. The stupid, stupid criminals of Masterminds thrive unexpectedly because the world they inhabit is just as idiotic and bumbling as they are.
Galifianakis is essentially stuck playing Forrest Gump here, a Southern-fried simpleton with a pure heart. Judging by the Hee-Haw level of Southernness on display, Hess apparently shouted “More hillbilly! Hillbillier! Make it more hillbillier!” after every take of his narration. But the Hangover scene-stealer at least gets a few bits of inspired physical comedy.
In the tacky tourist paradise of Cozumel, Mexico, which I once visited as part of the Kid Rock Chillin’ the Most cruise, David is vacationing incognito but the cat’s eye contact lenses he’s wearing to disguise his appearance make him look no human being that has ever lived; instead of allowing him to slink about unnoticed his wild get-ups can’t help but attract attention.
Steve at first vows to keep things similarly low-key with his ill-gotten millions but he lacks the self-discipline to keep a low profile so he immediately starts throwing around money in ways that practically scream, “Ask me about the millions of dollars in stolen loot that now fund my improbably lavish lifestyle!”
But Steve can’t enjoy his fortune knowing that David is out there living the high life like a pop culture writer on a junket so he dispatches a mustachioed contract killer played by Jason Sudeikis to kill the fugitive from justice only to have the murderer-for-hire become best friends with David for reasons far too stupid and convoluted to go into here.
In Masterminds, everything is dumb. The characters are dumb. Their dreams are dumb. Their schemes are dumb. Their clothes are dumb. The societal institutions that allow idiots to get away with stealing millions of dollars are dumb. Hess seems to labor under the delusion that he can alchemize all of this tackiness, all of this fussily curated stupidity, into something special, into something that transcends the ugliness of its individual parts. Hess wants to make bad good; instead he just ends up piling on the classist nastiness.
Masterminds benefits from the best possible cast. As is often the case with Hess’ movies, there was clearly something on the page that made the movie seem far funnier and more promising than it would eventually turn out to be. Casting Wilson as a real-life criminal who fancies himself something of a Keyser Soze-type mastermind is an inspired joke that intermittently pays off, like when he tries to assure Kelly that when David goes to jail it’ll be like a community colleges with walls, and, of course the occasional sniper in a guard tower.
Some of the details in a script credited to Emily Spivey, Chris Bowman and Hubbel Palmer absolutely kill, like Steve blasting Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” at the housewarming party at his aggressively soulless McMansion where he hopes to impress his new neighbors. The perennially Zubaz-clad Steve’s conception of the pampered life among the moneyed classes seems taken directly from a mid-1990s R&B video.
Wiig and Galifianakis have good chemistry; Galifianakis and Wiig make their characters far more likable than they have any right being but Hess still looks down smugly at his characters instead of allowing us to empathize and identify with them. He’s forever laughing at his leads instead of with them, and encouraging us to do the same.
If I can give Masterminds very faint praise it’s probably the best movie Jared Hess has made. Thanks largely to its star-studded, crazily over-qualified cast, it’s a perfectly mediocre time waster but considering the talent involved and the amazing, too crazy for fiction true life story that inspired it, Masterminds should be much funnier and more distinctive than it is.
Oh well. Next up for Hess is Shanghai Dawn, the long-in-the-works sequel to Shanghai Knights and Nicktoons, an animated feature film based on Nickelodeon’s roster of iconic cartoons. Will these be the movies that transform me into a Jared Hess fan? Probably not but assuming these movies get made, it will be interesting to seem them fail in exactly the same way that all of Hess’ other movies have.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
Support independent media and help ensure a robust present and future for the Happy Place over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace
Or get in on the Weird Accordion to Al book campaign over at https://make-the-weird-accordion-to-al-book-a-ridiculous-r.backerkit.com/hosted_preorders . We haven’t had a new pledge in close to a week so pledges are particularly appreciated.