‘Masterminds’: Occasional laughs in a true story that rings false

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Kelly (Kristen Wiig) lures co-worker David (Zach Galifianakis) into crime in “Masterminds.” | Relativity Media

Warning signs: “Road closed,” “flammable material” and, worst of all, “based on a true story.”

Or inspired by. Or whatever. Too often filmmakers use the true-story bit to take license with good sense. And, not for nothing, some true stories aren’t all that interesting.

The one that director Jared Hess takes on in “Masterminds” is, and he’s gathered a really funny cast (that looks like a “Saturday Night Live” reunion) to tell it, the story of one of the biggest heists in American history: $17 million, and from the looks of it, one carried off by the biggest bunch of idiots assembled since the Three Stooges.

Sometimes it’s absurdist comedy. Sometimes it’s dark comedy. Sometimes it’s out-and-out killing-people drama (almost, actually, but not quite). It’s often funny, but it never quite hangs together as a coherent movie.

But I did laugh.

For one thing, Zach Galifianakis is really sweet and funny as David Ghantt, an armored-car driver whose unrequited love for a fellow employee — Kristen Wiig, as Kelly — leads him to make bad decisions, as often seems to happen. Her friend Steve (Owen Wilson) convinces her to entice David into robbing the company of the boatloads of cash it has sitting around, waiting to be packed and transported to the bank. It’s cruel, of course, but Wiig plays Kelly as a kind-hearted thief with second thoughts.

The plan is to send poor David to Mexico with a little of the cash and leave him there. But things grow complicated through an increasingly unlikely series of events, which include Steve hiring an assassin named Mike McKinney (Jason Sudeikis) — the name will be important — to kill David.

Nothing goes as planned, of course. And a few obvious mistakes on the part of the robbers take far too long to come into play.

But again, I did laugh. When? Every time Kate McKinnon, who plays David’s fiancée, is on-screen, staring at the camera with menacing dead eyes. It’s just laugh-out-loud hilarious. Every time Leslie Jones, as a put-upon detective, gets angry, which is every time we see her. Every time Steve, whose plan is to lie low till the heat dies down, caves to his wife (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and makes another extravagant purchase (the mansion is a nice touch).

They’re funny bits. The actors involved sell them. But they don’t always add to the story.

Galifianakis is tasked with trying to hold the whole thing together, and he does a nice job of it. He’s a likable actor, a kind of less-manic Jack Black type who you can’t help but root for, no matter how stupid he acts. He does his best to try to serve as a transitional force between disparate scenes, at least until things truly fall apart at the end.

Maybe this is how the whole thing played out. (During the credit sequence we learn that the real-life Ghantt served as an advisor on the film.) Maybe, and this seems likely, the filmmakers took some license with the story (though if the real-life woman McKinnon plays is anything like the character, I’d love to see a movie about her). It’s too easy to use the true-story qualification as a crutch — you have to like this, it’s true!

Wrong. What a movie has to be, ultimately, is a movie. Documentaries tell true stories. Feature films get to greater truths by any means necessary. “Masterminds” will make you laugh, but no matter how real the story it’s telling, it never really rings true.

Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network


Relativity presents a film directed by Jared Hess and written by Emily Spivey, Jody Hill, Danny R. McBride, Chris Bowman and Hubbel Palmer. Running time: 93 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for crude and sexual humor, some language and violence.). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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