If there is a single shot in “Masterminds” that represents the intellectually and aesthetically untaxing comic spirit of this blithely lowbrow farce, it is the one that follows an ill-advised visit to a Mexican taco truck by the film’s cartoonish antihero, an inept thief on the lam played by Zach Galifianakis.
Loosely based on an actual 1997 heist of $17 million by an armored-car company employee, the film features the actor hiding beneath a wig that, in combination with his signature beard, makes him look “like Kenny Rogers and Kenny Loggins had a love child, and then Kenny G, he just showed up and started playing a flute and messed this boy up,” as co-star Leslie Jones’s character puts it. That’s a great line, by the way, in an otherwise so-so script that suggests it may have been improvised.
But back to the telling shot: As Galifianakis’ David Ghantt attempts to recover from a bout of Montezuma’s revenge in a Cozumel swimming pool, a plume of brown liquid erupts from his swimsuit region, signaling the film’s interest in the kind of bathroom slapstick that delights undiscriminating middle-schoolers, as well as those whose taste in comedy has never evolved beyond it. Other gags involve hiding money in underpants, the use of vaginal itch cream as a weapon and an accidental shooting that grazes what Ghantt refers to as his “biscuits.”
Such is the just-below-the-belt level of the low-hanging fruit that the filmmakers have chosen to harvest, in a comedy that induces cringing as often as laughter. Directed by Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”) from a screenplay by “SNL” writer Emily Spivey, Chris Bowman and Hubbel Palmer – the latter two of whom wrote the upcoming “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” – “Masterminds also features performances by Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Jason Sudeikis and Owen Wilson, in roles that largely squander their significant talent.
The film does have its moments, however, most of which have less to do with the story than with Hess’ connoisseur-like affinity for such perverse manifestations of late-20th-century junk culture as denim shorts and jacked-up Chevy Geos. “Masterminds” never quite works as a feature film, but it does feel like it might have been hilarious on a sketch-comedy show 20 years ago.
Two stars. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, some coarse language and slapstick violence.) 94 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.