Friday, September 30, 2016

Masterminds: Wishful thinking

Masterminds (2016) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, for crude humor, cartoonish violence and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

On the evening of October 4, 1997, the Charlotte, North Carolina, regional office of Loomis Fargo & Co. lost $17.3 million during a slapdash scheme orchestrated by vault supervisor David Scott Ghantt, his girlfriend Kelly Campbell, her friend Steve Chambers and his wife, Michelle, and four other participants.

After David (Zach Galifianakis, foreground left) fills the getaway van with countless stacks
of money, his confederates in crime — from left, Eric (Ross Kimball), Steve (Owen Wilson),
Kelly (Kristen Wiig) and Runny (David Ratray) — stare at the haul in utter disbelief.
Enduring this misbegotten comedy prompts an entirely different kind of disbelief.
In early March of 1998, all eight were arrested by the FBI, in large part because Steve and Michelle Chambers had spent so much of the loot quite brazenly. Subsequent prison sentences ranged from eight to 11 years, and the entire affair became known as the “hillbilly heist,” because of the blindingly stupid behavior of almost everybody involved.

Now, close to two decades later, what was the second-largest cash robbery on U.S. soil — at the time — has “inspired” a new comedy by director Jared Hess, best known for overly broad farces such as Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and an episode of the TV series The Last Man on Earth. Not to mention additional big-screen flops such as Gentlemen Broncos and Don Verdean.

It’s further telling that the scripting credits for this new film — which cite Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer and Emily Spivey — make absolutely no mention of the 2002 book Heist: The $17 Million Loomis Fargo Theft, written by Charlotte Observer investigative journalist Jeff Diamant. Why bother sourcing the official record of what obviously was an incredulously juicy saga to begin with, when hack film writers can deliver an inferior script instead?

Better still, why bother with the script, when Hess willingly tolerates a free-wheeling shoot that feels as if 90 percent of the dialog was ad-libbed?

After all, isn’t that why one hires comedic personalities such as Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig, Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis?

Ah, but here’s the rub: Not one of those stars is anywhere near as spontaneously sharp, fast or funny as s/he seems to think. Every line in this film feels stiff, forced and tin-eared; very few earn laughter. Worse yet, Hess holds his camera far too long on each dialog exchange, exposing the noticeable pauses that occur when actors haven’t yet figured out their next line.

Or, alternatively, can’t remember a legitimately scripted riposte.

We also endure the usual flatulence jokes and exposed butt cracks that pass for humor these days, along with — the height of humor — a bout of diarrhea in a swimming pool. Seems awfully easy to write moron comedy movies.

To put it bluntly, Masterminds is a train wreck of near epic proportions: a 94-minute slog that absolutely butchers what could, should and would have been a great heist comedy in better, less narcissistic hands.

And it’s not merely the inane non-sequiturs that pass for “talking” in this mess. All four of the performers cited above also flail about like frantic cartoon birds attempting take-off, as if flapping their arms amid wide-eyed anxiety will camouflage the insipid words dribbling from their slack-jawed mouths. It’s one thing to play the part of a country bumpkin; it’s a far different problem when we start to wonder if country bumpkins were hired in the first place.

Two exceptions stand out, for different reasons. Co-star Kate McKinnon is neither nervously verbose nor unduly animated; she is, instead, virtually comatose. Her so-called performance seems veiled by a permanent fog, her blank expressions, dead stares and oh ... so ... slow ... delivery suggesting a heavy dose of Quaaludes prior to each take. No doubt McKinnon views this a “characterization.” No viewer could be that generous.

Leslie Jones, on the other hand, is genuinely funny: Her physical performance suits her part, and she delivers tart one-liners like the seasoned pro the others believe themselves to be. She gets sole credit for this film’s one-star rating.

Those paying attention may have realized that this film reunites three of the four stars of summer’s gender-switched re-boot of Ghostbusters: Wiig, Jones and McKinnon. Some might call that an interesting coincidence; I prefer to view it as enemy action. Either way, as a group they’re no more satisfying or successful here, than they were while chasing ectoplasmic interlopers.

The plot, such as it is:

David Ghantt (Galifianakis), a dweebish but nonetheless trusted armored-truck driver for  Loomis Fargo, falls for fellow employee Kelly Campbell (Wiig), and therefore dumps his control-freak fiancée (McKinnon). The mildly unstable Kelly doesn’t last long on the job, and winds up sharing a double-wide mobile home — on stilts — occupied by Steve and Michelle Chambers (Wilson and Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and good buddies Eric (Ross Kimball) and Runny (David Ratray).

Steve, inspired by television updates of a recent Loomis Fargo heist in Florida, insists that he could pull off a similar score, and not get caught. All he needs is an inside guy — one who could be seduced by Kelly into participating — and Hey, presto! David fills that bill perfectly.

(Yes, difficult as it is to believe, an equally dumb-bunny Loomis Fargo driver named Philip Noel Johnson pulled off a similar job on March 29, 1997, netting $18.8 million, then the largest cash heist in U.S. history. He was caught five months later and sentenced to 25 years.)

Kelly persuades David to do all the dirty work — which proves distressingly easy — and turn over all the loot to Steve and the others. Then, according to plan, David flies to Mexico with a small chunk of money, in order to “lie low” while the FBI searches for the culprits. Kelly will join him soon, David is told; once the heat dies down, David is told, he and Kelly can return to the States, in order to collect the rest of his share.

But of course Steve has no intention of giving David any more money, planning instead to let the poor guy rot. Kelly isn’t entirely happy about this, but then Wiig never sells us on the notion that Kelly has any actual feelings for the guy, so her dithering is merely confusing.

When David eventually realizes that he has been conned, he threatens to expose all of the others ... whereupon Steve hires hit man Mike McKinney (Sudeikis) to kill Ghantt. (Yep, that also happened in real life.)

Meanwhile, the lead FBI agents (Jones and Jon Daly) are hot on various trails, thanks to Ghantt’s inept theft of the cash, and the Chambers’ suspiciously ostentatious spending spree.

Everybody is reunited during an improbable climax that most definitely isn’t drawn from actual events, by which time we’ve long ceased to care. Hess, his many failings including not knowing when the hell to get off the stage, tortures us with several false endings before, mercifully, the final credits finally roll.

The only true surprise in this film is the fact that it got released in the first place. The numskulled execs at Relativity Media who green-lighted this mess — and then decided to release it — would be well advised to sharpen up their résumés. Obviously, they’re just as imbecilic as the real-world David Ghantt and his cohorts.

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