Arguably the most outrageous line in the consistently bonkers heist comedy “Masterminds” occurs just four minutes in, after Zach Galifianakis, playing an armored-truck driver with an overgrown beard and Little Lord Fauntleroy haircut, shoots a hole in his shorts when ineptly trying to holster a handgun in his waistband. It is then that director Jared Hess (making his funniest film since “Napoleon Dynamite”) flashes the words “Based on a true story” across the screen. Sure enough, as crazy as the details can get, the basic facts of how a handful of rednecks stole, squandered, and were ultimately forced to surrender nearly $17 million in Loomis Fargo loot are true, making for a movie that will leave many gawking in disbelief — and the beleaguered Relativity laughing all the way to the bank.
At least, that would have been the case had this legitimately funny movie co-produced by “Saturday Night Live’s” Lorne Michaels and starring nearly the entire new “Ghostbusters” squad (minus Melissa McCarthy) opened last October — as originally planned — before Relativity, bankrupt and unable to foot the advertising costs, was forced to pull it from the release schedule. The jokes are no less entertaining a year later (and some, like Leslie Jones ranting about being mistaken for “a dude,” after having faced such slander in real life, actually play better now), though audiences have a way of keeping a skeptical distance when delays are involved. That means “Masterminds” will have a harder go of it, especially with another Galifianakis laffer (“Keeping Up With the Joneses”) opening just three weeks later.
Galifianakis plays David Ghantt as a socially awkward, over-compensating doofus determined to impress his sexy, newly single Loomis Fargo colleague Kelly (Kristen Wiig). Their chemistry — he exudes a sort of dopey schoolboy crush, she’s tentatively intrigued to be receiving a decent guy’s attentions for once — is easily the most winsome ingredient in a comedy where every detail is offered up as some sort of joke. As in “Napoleon Dynamite,” Hess and his team waste no opportunity to potentially earn a laugh, from costumes to props to wallpaper to hairdos. This sometimes leaves a scene feeling forced and overcrowded (as when Galifianakis walks on screen wearing a white tuxedo and camouflage-print cummerbund), but other times lands like the cherry on top of an already hilarious sundae (driving off in a run-down pickup truck with a makeshift plywood gate where the missing door should be).
David’s charm springs from his small-town, small-time-dreamer status. Content to guzzle Cheerwine and pop Goo Goo Clusters with his bossy and all-around unpleasant fiancée Jandice (the Emmy-winning Kate McKinnon, a scene-stealer here), David has never left his native North Carolina and is, as the film’s sarcastic title implies, the state’s least likely criminal mastermind. And yet, his guilelessness is the very quality that Kelly and her opportunity-seeking accomplice Steve (Owen Wilson, barely able to keep a straight face) identify as their ticket out of the trailer park: David not only holds the keys to the Loomis Fargo vault, he’s eager to please his pretty new friend.
And so David stays after work one evening, tossing wads of bills into the back of his armored van (in real life, Ghantt stole more than he could actually transport), knocking out all but one of the security cameras (a real mistake), and temporarily locking himself inside with the cash (when really, the thieves managed to lock themselves out of a sealed truck full of money). Then he flies to Mexico in the world’s most conspicuous disguise — which Galifianakis himself describes as “like Jesus and a cat made a baby,” but actually looks even sillier than that — to wait for Kelly to join him and Steve to wire him his share. Of course she never shows, and Steve sends a hit man (played by a pervy-looking Jason Sudeikis) to rub him out.
While David quickly blows through his spending money buying a clownish red cowboy suit and Bob Ross-style perm (part of his next attention-grabbing disguise), Steve and his wife go on an extravagant spending spree, buying a mansion and a host of jaw-droppingly tacky home furnishings (some of which, like the velvet Elvis painting, are true to the actual case). It wouldn’t take an FBI genius to solve this mystery, and Jones and Jon Daly play their respective detectives as being a long way from masterminds themselves, though the case has a way of playing straight into their hands.
Working to the advantage of Hess and his screenwriting trio (Chris Bowman and Hubbel Palmer, with “SNL” vet Emily Spivey), the weirdest aspects of this story simply couldn’t be invented, putting “Masterminds” in that same credibility-straining zone as Jim Carrey con-man comedy “I Love You Philip Morris” and the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” (which, faux “true story” claims aside, proved to be totally fabricated after all). Like both of those films, extreme regional accents serve to heighten the comedy (Sudeikis may as well be channeling former North Carolina resident — and executive producer — Danny McBride), while underscoring the characters’ ignorance. Still, it’s this improv-ready ensemble’s wit and Galifianakis’ own gift for physical humor that account for most of the laugh-out-loud moments, heightened by silly flourishes so eccentric (an assassin whose weapon of choice is an Alamo-era musket, a nose-whistling FBI informant resentful of his nouveau-riche neighbors) they could only be found in a Jared Hess movie. Now if only the masterminds in Relativity’s marketing department could figure out a way to let potential audiences know how amusing this under-the-radar release really is.