Wednesday 2 November 2016

Masterminds (2016) - Movie Review

Zach Galifianakis, for as varied and kind of inconsistent as his filmography is, might be the quintessential modern comedian. He embodies our still-growing fascination with random and rather annoying occurrences, working with some of the biggest suppliers of that style of humour like Funny Or Die and Tim & Eric, yet he has enough common sense to not let the actual humour of those occurrences just get washed away. Hell, his breakout role in The Hangover was a serious lightning-in-a-bottle scenario that even that film’s sequels weren’t able to replicate. Not only that, he’s managed to move into more down-to-earth fare with Birdman and did a damn good job keeping up with the already stellar cast. He has two theatrical films out in cinemas right now, and even though this film’s poster has been lingering and instilling a form of dread in me for many months now, this is the one that I’m looking forward to by comparison.

The plot: David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis), a driver of an armoured truck, is unhappy with the current direction of his life. However, when his co-worker Kelly (Kristen Wiig) asks for his help in a heist of one of the trucks, David thinks that he has found that excitement he’s been looking for. However, as the mastermind behind the heist Steve (Owen Wilson) starts to believe that David is a third wheel that needs to be let go, it turns out that David may be a more formidable opponent than any of them could have guessed.

The cast here is actually really well arranged, despite the fact that I can’t stop wishing that Jim Carrey was still attached to this as David. With this kind of story, his screwball sensibilities would have been perfect. Don’t get me wrong, though; Galifianakis gives the lead a certain affable charm while (mostly) preventing him from being the guy that we collectively laugh at. Wilson’s cockiness, complete with that unmistakable delivery of his, fits his more-confident-than-he-should-be character to a T. Wiig’s inexplicable singing makes a return from Sausage Party, and she does end up being a rather passive character for more of the film than I would have liked, she’s still good as what is essentially a manipulator with a warm heart. Kate McKinnon as David’s fiancée is kind of creepy as the dead-eyed sub-suburban housewife, but I just have to give her credit when she can play a person this placid and not just blink out of existence. Jason Sudeikis appears later on as a hitman, and he is still as mesmerizingly engaging as any other film he’s been in. He’s like a cross between Rooster Cogburn and Winner Sinclair; it’s all kinds of awesome.

Within moments of David’s opening narration, the prospect of the heist at the core of the film’s plot is brought up by Kelly. Don’t let this fool you into thinking this is a trimmed-down narrative; it is about as adept at wasting time with ‘hilarious’ rambling conversations as pretty much every other comedy film out this year. If there’s anything I can credit this film with in that regard, it’s that I have nailed down what exactly makes this style of humour work(?) and distinguishes it. Basically, it equates to a lot of commenting about what other people look like (“You look like [famous person] after [event that doubles as a punchline]”) and, for way too much of the start of this film, that’s what happens here too. When dealing with a story that is a) based on actual events and b) full of enough weird details to fill a script well enough on its own, falling back on the hack’s guide to comedic writing make this a fairly unsubstantial sit… at first.

Once Sudeikis’ assassin enters the picture, with his perplexing performance in tow, the film starts to pick at a rather drastic pace. This is about halfway through the film, and it’s here where the film’s reliance on line-a-rama improvisations starts to fall and its reliance on situational comedy starts to rise. While it could be a result of just how Sudeikis and Galifianakis interact on screen, making for easily one of the better comedic double acts of the year, it also ends up spending more time on letting things actually happen within the narrative. Namely, showing David as an impossibly surprising force of will once it hits the fan and people start gunning for him. It’s here where the fact that this based on an actual headline comes closer to the light, as the film portrays him in a similar light to Carl Williams in the Aussie series Underbelly, which was also based on actual events and featuring an affable character that manages to defy logic and succeed where the rules of chance say that he shouldn’t. It also helps that the scenarios he’s given, like his connection to the assassin, and the physical comedy he pulls off, like the chase scenes involving the assassin, give the film a bit of heartiness that make it worth the uphill climb it first has to take.

However, more so than it actually being funny, the biggest surprise here is that the writers have put a remarkable amount of thought into the inner workings of the script. Specifically, the big question of why these people decided that committing grand larceny was the way to go. The film starts out with David reminiscing on his upbringing and watching exciting stories of people in his present line of work… and then the utter letdown that is how that job is like for the other 364 days of the year: It’s as dull as any other blue collar workload. Add to this McKinnon being as zombified as she is and the comments made around Steve and his wife once they move into a ritzier neighbourhood, and this starts to fall into classist satire territory. You know, looking into the circumstances of the lower class, how kind of awful they are, and just how desperate some of them have to be to escape from that lifestyle. For a film that started spinning its wheels in the mud, the actual care and effort taken into fleshing out the circumstances show that there was actual intent put into the concept of making this story into a film. Believe it or not, that amount of effort is a lot rarer nowadays than it should be when it comes to cinema adapted from real world stories.

All in all, while it does take a while to really kick off, this is actually really damn funny. The characters are varied, but really good when they hit it right like with David and Mike the hitman, the comedy starts off sour but sweetens up once the film’s priorities set in, and its approach to bringing one of the weirder true crime stories to the big screen is very commendable and something I can only hope is followed by the many that are sure to follow. Given my peculiarly picky tastes when it comes to comedy, it takes something pretty outstanding to make me vibe with this style of mirth and this is certainly that.

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