Masterminds, which opened this past weekend, is a delightfully silly mess. The film’s studio, Relativity Media, originally slated it for last October, but then they underwent a debt crisis that forced them to shelve it and several other projects for a year. But it feels strangely apropos in our current, troubling political season. Masterminds, in the tradition of movies like Talladega Nights, aims squarely at people who used to be called “white trash.” If the movie had been written for a 2016 audience, there surely would have been some pointed references to Donald Trump’s appeal among the lesser-educated caucasian set. And while the film does laugh at the stupidity of its characters, it also imbues them with humanity: they love, they scheme, they manipulate, they wander, they dream, they crash and burn with often hilarious frequency.
It’s the story of a Loomis Fargo employee who steals 17 million dollars from his employer, all ostensibly out of infatuation/love for his former co-worker. Zach Galifianakis, who resembles a pudgy hedgehog with his shoulder-length hair and a curtain of bangs, plays David Ghannt (who really did rob a Loomis Fargo, in 1997). He’s like a less disgusting version of the Cousin Eddie character from the Vacation movies. In an opening scene in which Ghannt and his co-worker Kelly (Kristen Wiig) are at a shooting range, David accidentally fires his gun after shoving it in the back of his pants, forcing Kelly to investigate any potential injuries to his backside. David doesn’t know to care what other people think of him, and as such, he’s not embarrassed that the girl he likes is checking his ass for bullet wounds. No, David goes about his life in a state of blithe obliviousness. He’s like a dim-witted Marx Brother, totally unaware of the gags he’s creating for our amusement. And yet, David’s smart enough to be dissatisfied with his crappy job and his bummer of a fiancé Jandyce (more on her later), which is probably why David agrees to Kelly’s robbery scheme.
Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis and Kate McKinnon round out the principle cast: Wilson plays Steve, Kelly’s ex-boyfriend (or friend; the film doesn’t ever make it clear what their relationship is); Steve is the ultimate mastermind behind the robbery, although he does almost nothing to aid with the actual execution of the crime; Sudeikis plays a sleazy, mustachioed hitman that goes after David once he escapes to Brazil; and McKinnon plays Jandyce, who keeps her husband-to-be on a very tight leash, although not tight enough, as it turns out. McKinnon, who brandishes those crazy eyes of hers like she’s boring into the camera with two laser beams, seems to take particular delight in her character: a dominant sales clerk who shares a double-wide trailer with her taciturn mother and, of course, her man. (In one of the funniest scenes, David and Jandyce pose in a series of increasingly bizarre engagement photos outside their trailer.)
As a movie, Masterminds may be slight to a fault. It suffers through enough plot holes, and it moves so fast that at times it fails to develop certain relationships adequately. But it’s kind of a relief, since so many comedies today wander for two hours until they come to predictable resolutions. Masterminds doesn’t seem concerned about resolving things, or taking an eternity to get its plot going. It’s not really concerned with plot at all, thank God. Twenty minutes in, David Ghannt has already committed the robbery (in a particularly funny sequence in which he piles copious stacks of freshly minted bills into the back of an armored vehicle, in which he inadvertently locks himself.) Masterminds cares more about shaping funny scenes around its tiny world of misfit morons than it does about the niggling beats of a plot that we already know from countless other movies. It assumes we don’t need a new take on the conventional robbery comedy, just more scenes with these delightful freaks. The only shame is that Galifianakis’s character is sent off to Brazil for most of the film, where he does not interact with the others in person (except for Jason Sudeikis). But in the mean time, the film tracks Kelly’s growing sense of guilt: she had no intention of joining him in Brazil, and Steve is about to rat him out so that neither of them will be implicated. Meanwhile, Steve and his money-grubbing wife (played by Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and their two put-upon children, embark on a spending spree. They acquire one of those standard stucco McMansions, which they fill with all the chintzy redneck trappings they can get their hands on, including a ghastly Elvis painting, and they stock the garage with a convertible and some big-wheeled sedan monstrosity.
Perhaps most assuring is the fact that Masterminds never reforms any of its characters. If it made fun of white trash culture and then forced these people to become enlightened or sophisticated, the result would be insulting. (Steve and Michelle try to hob knob with some rich couples, but it’s clear that their money will never be enough to class them up.) Instead, we’re left with a truer more humane view of these characters. The director, Jared Hess, has a gift for creating strange comedy worlds (something he did very well in the sleeper hit Napoleon Dynamite); and even if Masterminds doesn’t always gel, it bumbles its way into some surprising truths about class in America: Are we really a nation in which you can change your status with money? Perhaps the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no.