(On Cable TV, July 2017) I may be overdosing on criminal comedies featuring idiots, explaining my tepid reaction to Masterminds. On paper, it does sound promising: What if an idiot working for an armoured car company found a way to steal a considerable amount of money … only to be stalked and targeted by equally idiotic accomplices? Throw in a cast including such notables a Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, Kirsten Wiig, Leslie Jones or Kate McKinnon and you’ve got the making of a good-enough comedy. But it takes more than comedians and a premise to make a film, and as Masterminds lurches from one mildly amusing set-piece to another, there’s a feeling that director Jared Hess is up to the kinds of tricks that made his previous films (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos) so divisive. Masterminds makes the classic blunder of keeping an unfunny gag running for as long as possible, sapping audience goodwill at periodic intervals. There are clearly attempts at making something amusing in this film, and some of them even succeed. But the overall result is not particularly funny, and the criminal plot of the film really isn’t strong enough to pick up the slack. Owen Wilson seems a bit lost in a role that robs him of his usual genial nature, and Wiig is up to more or less the same kind of awkward comedy that either works or not. This being said, Gallifinakis is not bad, and comic-chameleon Kate McKinnon continues her prodigious streak of disappearing in the roles she’s given. Masterminds doesn’t exactly deserve a spot on worst-movie list, but it certainly disappoints.
(On DVD, January 2012) After Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, I already know that I’m not a fan of Jared Hess’ brand of so-called comedy and wouldn’t have attempted watching Gentlemen Broncos if it wasn’t for one thing: It’s tangentially about science-fiction writers. Not SF writers in our universe but in Hess’ typical Midwest Pathetic Kitsch aesthetics, SF writers in an alternate dimension where trashy forties pulp SF has become the dominant aesthetics of the genre as of 2009. (One imagines a world where Heinlein remained healthy throughout his years in the Navy, became admiral and never wrote the stuff.) Not that one would expect realism from Hess, whose love for hum-drum small-town settings can’t hide grotesquely dysfunctional characters. Gentlemen Broncos isn’t about its weak plot or weaker jokes as much as it’s about the awkwardness card played every thirty seconds, stretched over too-lengthy doses of meaninglessness. Everyone is a moron in this film and if Hess remains somewhat attached to them in a non-condescending fashion, it’s not an affection that translates into an enjoyable viewing experience. There are, to be fair, a number of interesting things buried deep in the muck: The opening credits are ingeniously designed through SF paperback; Michael Angarano is sympathetic as the teenage hero (albeit never more than when he finally shows some spine), Jemaine Clement has a very nice voice and can build a memorable comic character as a SF professional plagiarist; and there’s an interesting take on the creative process as we see the same fantasy filtered through three different minds. But the rest is the kind of stuff for which “cult movie” was defined: Intentionally stilted, deliberately perplexing and consciously crude in an effort to isolate itself from the mainstream. You can almost see in Gentlemen Broncos the blueprint for a much funnier film (in fact, you can see it in the trailer) –it’s a shame that Hess’ worst instincts are holding back the material. The “rental exclusive” DVD contains no special features, which isn’t exactly a disappointment.
(On DVD, February 2009) Well, what can we say? It’s from Jared Hess, the writer/director of Napoleon Dynamite, so it’s hardly surprising if viewers either think it’s genius or lame. I’m much closer to thinking “lame” myself, although I have to admire the conceptual audacity of the premise: Making a movie about an overweight monastery cook becoming a Mexican wrestling champion ranks pretty highly on the “things I’d never thought would lead to a movie” scale. Alas, that one-note premise isn’t backed up by anything resembling comedy: assortments of odd moments don’t add up to jokes, and whatever laughs there are in the film often look like accidents for a script that seems determined to be more bizarre than funny. Jack Black’s usual shtick is toned-down to the point where it’s both inoffensive and dull; it speaks volumes that he’s considerably funnier on the DVD audio commentary track than in the movie itself. Otherwise, well, it’s obvious that this is one of those films that claims “It didn’t get it; it wasn’t funny” as a badge of success. Think about Napoleon Dynamite and let that film be your guide to how you feel about this one.
(On DVD, August 2005) To say that this is a cult movie is to abuse understatement. Much as saying that this will appeal to a select number of viewers. Even I, as a self-professed uber-nerd, as a guy for can love even the stupidest films, had a hard time making it to the end of this one. The eponymous character is a nerd without skills, living in what seems to be a town similarly devoid of normality. Everyone in this film, with very few exceptions, behave in orthogonal ways to what people usually do: while that would have been amusing in a five minutes short film, here it drags on for 82 long and painful minutes, like nails being scratched on a blackboard. Believe me; the joke gets old quickly, backed-up with the most intentionally lifeless acting ever committed to film since Ed Wood. There is no interface between Napoleon’s weirdness and the normal world: naturalism (or, heck, realism) never really intrudes in this film. (Even writer/director Jared Hess’ aggressively dull direction offers no respite: The best we get are shots of girls being horrified.) It sort of pays off at the end with a glorious dance number and the unexpected escape of a character to a ghetto-gangster life, but there is no shame at stopping the film after only fifteen minutes if you suspect it won’t get any better. I suspect that my reaction to the film is shaped by my own experience of geekness: All of the nerds in my life may be socially inept and prone to weird and obsessive behaviour, but all of them had some superb skill or two. Technically, socially inept people without skills are called “retards”, and that may or may not sum up my final reaction to Napoleon Dynamite.