Coming, this week, off of Netflix is the 2016 film Masterminds. I’ve commented often about how Netflix’s policy has done me a favor, causing me to view a movie that I might otherwise have passed over. In this case, while I did enjoy Masterminds, I could probably have taken or left it.
To compare and contrast with the last movie I looked at, this one also wasn’t much of a success. It did manage to cover its production costs (some $30 million total against a $25 million budget), but not by a wide margin. Critically, the movie was not particularly appreciated. So unlike Jesse James, this isn’t a great movie that somehow was a mismatch with the Hollywood formula – it was a Hollywood formula, although I do think they screwed up even in that regard, at least somewhat.
The story is based on the real-life robbery of an armored car company vault after hours. At the time, it resulted in the second-largest cash haul by an American thief, second only to an armored car robbery perpetrated upon the very same company some months before. The facts of the crime, such as they are known, are farcical on their face. The concept of truth being stranger than fiction comes to mind, but Hollywood would beg to differ.
I think a large part of the problem with this movie is that it didn’t understand what it was trying to be. Clearly this concept wasn’t pitched as a true-crime docu-drama. It’s quite obviously meant to be a comedy, complete with the top box-office names to headline and bring in the bucks, per formula. Yet even those movies that lean heavily towards historical fact will often take dramatic liberties to make a better movie. So is that what we have here? Is this the crazy-but-true-story of a bank robbery gone stupid, just jazzed up a little for the big screen? If it is, I’d say on that basis it is somewhat successful.
After I watched the movie, I watched the trailer (for reasons I’ll get to in a bit). What I saw was a stock trailer for the typical mediocre movie, comedy version. The trailer takes all the funniest pieces of the movie and strings them together. The idea (per the marketing men) is that you think, “well that was pretty funny” and put up the price of the full movie not realizing, until after you’ve paid, that you’ve already seen all the best jokes. Granted I’d already seen the movie but I feel that, if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t really want to watch it on the basis of that trailer.
Contrast to the way Netflix pushed it on me. Their algorithms say I like movies based on real events, so they gave me a thumbs-up on that basis. The intro, as you’re scrolling through the Netflix screens, has most of an early comedic scene between the main character and his love interest. They’re just talking, but not too seriously, about the possibility of robbing their employer. This is a nice setup – it both lets you know what the gist of the story is (accompanying text referenced the real-life robbery) and lets you know that it’s going to be a goofy comedy. It didn’t make me drop everything to want to watch it but I got the sense it would be something I’d like.
Now I’m a bit of a sucker for broad, physical comedy with a bit of elementary-school level “potty” humor thrown in. From what I can tell, I share this with the majority of American men. Bits of Masterminds really had me falling-out-of-my-chair laughing. Not that I’d recommend it for an Oscar, but it did make me laugh. I think the key to the success is that these bits of ridiculous absurdity are thrown into a story that, itself, has the added depth behind it of “these are actually real people who REALLY did do this stupid stuff!” Of course, half of it they really didn’t do – there are a lot of stereotypical redneck jabs tossed around that, almost certainly, have no factual basis. But the fact that there are real people behind it all makes it work.
Contrast that with the sucker who saw some really funny lines from Owen Wilson and figured, “I love Owen Wilson,” and so went to be entertained. Several reviewers complained that there just weren’t enough jokes. Certainly, I think if I were drawn in by that theatrical trailer only to realize I’d already seen all the jokes, I’d be of a similar opinion.
Given that the film made money, is this a marketing success or a marketing fail? Setting up false expectations means you’re more likely to disappoint but here the name of the game is getting the paying customers through the door. Is the genre they pitched more popular than the genre they actually made? If so, they may have played it right.
Speaking of making money, I’ll come back to why I was watching that trailer. There are a couple of songs in the soundtrack that were familiar-but-not-quite. This included a song used throughout, including opening and closing credits. I assumed it was an AC/DC song, but one I’d never heard. At the time I wanted to check on some of the characters, the combination of who played them along with the extent to which they matched real people. I got it in my head that it would be entertaining to listen to that song while I read. I began searching YouTube only to find that I could not locate such a song. When I did searches for the soundtrack as a whole, it turns out that several of the songs are absolutely scrubbed from the internet. Even if I look to buy a CD, Amazon seems only to sell a recording of the score, not the pop-songs that were used throughout the movie.
My best guess is it is a song written specifically for the movie by a “band” that makes its living writing songs for movie soundtracks.
This seems really strange to me. I can only imagine it is the collapse of some kind of deal to use the music rights beyond the theater release. I can understand that protecting your copyrights is necessary to protect your revenue stream from your creative works, but to make a song or two completely vanish is also no way to make money. At least that’s the way I see it.