There is a joke popular among children that goes as follows: “Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Banana.” “Banana who?” “Knock knock.” The same lines get repeated again and again until the joke-teller replaces banana with orange. “Orange who?” “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?” The joke is repetitive, irritating and when the punch-line lands, unfunny. Masterminds is its movie equivalent. Surprisingly, the movie is based on a true story. In 1997, the recently formed Loomis Fargo was robbed of approximately $17 million from its vault. As the armored van drove away with the bank’s money, it was revealed that it was actually a bank robbery. Zach Galifianakis plays David Ghantt, the Loomis Fargo security guard who stole the money. Despite the movie being based on a true story, the motivation behind the bank robbery feels trite. Kristen Wiig plays a watered-down femme fatale—she leads Ghantt on and convinces him to commit a robbery for her. Ghantt is too kind of a person for her cruel tricks and she begins to regret her actions as romance ensues. None of the events feel unexpected or particularly meaningful.
Though Ghantt is being led on by Wiig’s character, he is engaged to another woman, played by Kate McKinnon. She is one of the few glimmers of humor in this relentlessly unfunny mess. Though her character is unoriginal, seemingly scrapped together from McKinnon’s portrayal of Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live, her words feel more energetic than the rest of the jokes in Masterminds. Her dry humor deadpan is a delight. The faults of this movie lay in its unoriginality and repetitive style.
A large majority of the jokes are based on the concept of setting up an expectation, then breaking that expectation for humorous effect. This tool of comedy is effective when used sparingly. However, when used in excess, the punchline becomes too easy to predict. There is also an uncomfortable overuse of montage humor. Any time characters are doing something that could take longer than a few minutes, the scene turns turns into quick cuts showing Ghantt’s repeated failed actions. These montages grab the audience by the shoulders and say, “Please laugh. Please.”
The movie adapts a heist comedy genre. This offers the opportunity for intricate plans and impressive cast ensembles. Masterminds succeeds at providing a list of well-known comedy actors. Unfortunately, the comedy part falls flat. There is no real cleverness to the film, which relishes the opportunity to show characters making mistakes as if the film was a YouTube compilation of “Epic Fails!” Zach Galifianakis’ presence necessitates the inclusion of jokes about how he is too fat to fit through a small opening. The heist itself only takes up the first act of the movie, as the rest of the story is about Ghantt’s run from the law and his friends.
Owen Wilson plays the heist’s mastermind, going by the moniker of Geppetto. Geppetto sends a contract killer after Ghantt, which sets up some of the funniest moments Masterminds has to offer. Geppetto and his wife demonstrate why the robbery was nicknamed the “Hillbilly Heist,” with their overabundant spending on a garish velvet portrait of Elvis Presley, a McMansion and a sedan with monster truck wheels, among other things. The two also demonstrate their affluence by getting braces for their teeth. Earlier in the movie, Ghantt’s pickup truck is seen with a wood panel in place of a door.
The thieves are written as North Carolinian yokels. Stories from the real life heist show that it was a faithful adaptation. The group miscalculated how much space the money in the vault would take up and ended up leaving behind $3 million in singles and five dollar bills. Steve Chambers, the real life Geppetto, moved with his wife into a large mansion within the vicinity of the robbery. At first, the FBI dismissed the possibility of their involvement because of how unlikely it would be that people involved in the robbery would stay so close to the scene of the crime. The second act of the movie introduces the FBI, and with them, another one of the few humorous elements—Leslie Jones as a law enforcement officer.
She brings liveliness and comedy to her character, making the movie a little more bearable for the brief moments she is on screen. With so many popular comedy actors, it is surprising that so few are actually entertaining. This kind of surprise is the reason why the movie disappoints its viewers. There is a lot of potential being unnecessarily squandered, resulting in what is really just a waste of time. The movie utterly failed in making it all come together.
Regardless of any expectations of poor filmmaking, it is still disappointing to see wasted potential. There are some movies which succeed in being entertaining while being short of greatness. There are movies like Mission: Impossible, which audiences can walk out of knowing that it was a well-spent couple of hours. Masterminds is not a good way to spend any amount of time. It bores and fails to entertain. Like a knock-knock joke about a banana.