It’s difficult to sell the potential enjoyment of a Jared Hess film to the disinterested, because the director’s work can be so aggressively quirky-for-its-own-sake & juvenile. Hess’s latest film, Masterminds, has been the most difficult sell of the director’s career yet, possibly in a very literal sense. His debut, Napoleon Dynamite, was a dirt cheap indie comedy that somehow stumbled into the kind of success that scores you decades-long merch sales in roadside truck stops & shopping mall novelty shops, despite being the director’s least interesting work to date. Titles like Nacho Libre, Don Verdean, and (my personal favorite) Gentlemen Broncos have mostly flown under the radar since, as have the projects of Hess’s wife & creative partner Jerusha. Not one of these examples has suffered the financial & distributive roadblocks of Masterminds, though. A harmless madcap bank heist comedy starring Zach Galifianakis & three Ghostbusters (Jones, Wiig, and McKinnon), Masterminds has struggled for at least two years to see the light of day. The film itself is very amusing to those already onboard with Hess’s lost-in-time awkwardness schtick, but also relatively unexceptional within the larger scope of his career. The fact that something so straightforward from Hess has taken this long to overcome its distribution setbacks (which included the financial collapse of Relativity Media), only to flop on its long-awaited opening weekend does not bode well for the director’s career at large. He can’t continue making these comfortable, mid-budget, non-flashy comedies and expect to survive in the current Hollywood climate, no matter how much I (and apparently very few others) happen to find them amusing. Not without bringing his content straight to VOD, at least.
I could make some sort of grand claim about how the virtue of honesty is what ties together the heart of Hess’s narratives or that his films are interesting in their application of a Wes Anderson visual craft to a gross-out Farrelly Brother aesthetic, but I’m not sure that’s what makes them work as comedies. What Hess brings to the table, besides the general quease of Sears family photo shoots, is the visual punchline. In Masterminds, the machinations of Zach Galifianakis’s hapless security guard being coerced into robbing a bank by his milquetoast seductress, Kristen Wiig, or her sleaze ball cohort, Owen Wilson, aren’t nearly as amusing as just the mere look of him. The Prince Valiant haircut, the full beard, the tight novelty t-shirts: Zach Galifianakis is the fashion version of a slapstick pratfall. Certainly, there are funny turns of phrase in the film (mostly delivered by Jason Sudeikis’s cold-as-ice contract killer) but no dialogue in the film made me laugh nearly as hard as just the distinctly awkward visual tableau Hess crafted with his vanity-free players. In many ways Kate McKinnon was perfect casting for this comedy style, as it’s the criticism she most often receives from her work in SNL. She doesn’t deliver jokes so much as that she is the joke, striking such a specifically strange, crazy-eyed image that no verbal play is needed to sell the humor. This might not be enough for some folks, but just the mere sight of her posing for wedding photos with Zach Galifianakis to an Enya song is personally all I need to guffaw.
The humor of Masterminds is, in the film’s own words, “dumber than a suitcase full of buttholes.” The “based on a real story” failed bank heist plot is amusing, but indistinct. Stray lines about a “fart transplant” or why boobs don’t bleed milk are certainly funny & Jason Sudeikis’s sociopathic assassin is hilariously out of place in this world of naïve dummies, but the film isn’t particularly memorable for any verbal or narrative touches. It’s Hess’s deft with the comedic image, whether McKinnon posing in a hideous wedding dress or Galifianakis chowing down on a goo-filled tarantula, that makes Masterminds a weird, dumb delight. It’s doubtful that Hess can continue to get away with constructing those awkward tableaus in perpetuity, given the lukewarm reception each of his films have received since his surprise hit debut (and his worst film to date, in my opinion), but for now I’m enjoying the weirdly wonderful results. Anyone else should be able to tell at a quick glance if they’re also going to be onboard, considering the visual nature of the director’s humor.