Inevitably, the best part of any Jared Hess movie is whatever The New Yorker’s Richard Brody writes about it. Brody is the film critic most on Hess’s wavelength, able to enjoy his films’ fussy eccentricity, aloof absurdism, and reliance on characters who are stumbling stupid dopes. I look forward to reading Brody’s takes because, aside from the fact he’s a terrific writer worth reading even if you disagree with his position, I wish these movies worked on me like they do him. From the outside, they seem fun, with goofy premises and promising casts of talented performers. There’s his 2004 Napoleon Dynamite, the surprise hit about a gawky high school nerd, and Nacho Libre, with Jack Black as a monk moonlighting as a luchador. His best, though still uneven and hard to hang with for their entirety, are Gentlemen Broncos, in which Jemaine Clement plays a pompous sci-fi author, and Don Verdean, starring Sam Rockwell as a fraud Christian archeologist. These all sound like fun movies, but I always watch them slightly perplexed, delighting anytime a rare laugh surfaces. In Hess’s style the humor is often hermetically sealed in a signal my brain can only intermittently pick up.
Hess’s latest is Masterminds, a movie about a group of dim schemers who attempt to pull off a massive heist and then flail around in its aftermath. It’s based on a true story, loosely I hope. If you ever in your life find yourself in a situation so bad you look around and think to yourself, “this could be a Jared Hess movie,” something has gone terribly wrong for you. The characters here are all sad members of the working poor, and the movie’s perspective is aggressively condescending and dismissive. They work minimum wage jobs, live in trailers, and shop at big box discount chains, and Hess shoots every scene to emphasize the grotesque, the tacky, the pitiable. There’s not an ounce of empathy or sympathy in the film’s mocking construction or approach, desperate people willing to do dire things for dumb reasons squirming under pressure for our amusement. Of course a movie could theoretically get away with being cruel or mercilessly satirical, but not one so purposeless as this. It’s only out to deride and denigrate, looking down its nose in heartless smirking scorn.
At least the talented performers are bright enough to sneak in some endearing, even amusing, touches now and then. They try, anyway. Zach Galifianakis is an awkward armored car driver head over heels for his shift partner (Kristen Wiig). When her dumb friend (Owen Wilson) asks her to seduce the sap into stealing $17 million in cash from the warehouse after hours, she’s willing to go along with it. The driver doesn’t know he’s being duped, and that the woman he thinks he’s colluding with in heist and in love is never going to go on the run with him. He’d be better off staying home, following the law, and marrying his creepy fiancé (Kate McKinnon). Alas, the heist goes off and goes wrong, drawing the dogged pursuit of a weary FBI agent (Leslie Jones) and a wacky hit man (Jason Sudeikis). The plot is rigged against them all – and there’s something extra squirm-worthy to consider the real people in the real story seeing themselves presented in such a funhouse-mirror farce – but the actors involved scrape out enough eccentric line readings to make it seem like a comedy.
Remarkably low-energy and scattershot, the movie slowly grinds to its conclusion through increasingly broad and mind-numbingly exaggerated silliness involving kidnappings, death threats, disguises, stupid mistakes, lazy coincidences, and strained stakes. Hess doesn’t take advantage of the inherent comedy of his cast or concept. Instead it drains into gross out gags – a gooey bit about biting into a tarantula is so puss-filled it made me gag – and preposterous developments – like a hit man easily tricked into thinking a man with his stolen birth certificate is, in fact, a long-lost crib mate. It’s not heightened so much as artificial, with shallow, static framing always straining for oddball intent with claustrophobic fussiness and flat affect instead of coming by its weirdness naturally. Maybe there’s some way to understand the movie’s creative spark or unusual perspective, but I can’t find it. Aside from a few promising flickers here and there, the whole thing plays out like dead air to me. I left scratching my head, completely unaffected, a little repulsed, more than a little annoyed, and eager to see what Richard Brody had to say about all this.