Generally, crime movies—especially those based on true events—are fairly serious in tone. It’s difficult to make a funny film about characters breaking the law.
And yet, some filmmakers are able to achieve this goal with extremely entertaining results. Released in 2016, Masterminds is an example of a film that manages to make audiences laugh while also depicting actual events involving criminal behavior.
Making this kind of a movie is a difficult balancing act. If the movie is too humorous, audiences will feel as though the tone of the film is too jarring. In addition, the gags will fall flat when juxtaposed against the objectively dark circumstances depicted on screen.
On the other hand, some filmmakers play it too safe. They only inject a little bit of humor into the film. By making the movie too dramatic, the jokes simply feel out of place when they do occur.
That’s why producers, writers, and directors interested in making this type of movie could benefit from studying the example of Masterminds. The true story of the 1997 Loomis Fargo bank heist, it consistently gets laughs out of its audience. The film manages to do so for the following key reasons:
Casting Comedic Actors
Again, when making a comedic movie based on an actual crime, it’s not a good idea to make every scene laugh-out-loud funny. You want the audience to appreciate the gravity of what’s being shown on the screen to at least some degree.
That can make it difficult to maintain a mildly humorous tone throughout the movie. When a scene contains few jokes or gags, it can feel naturally dramatic. That means when a scene does contain jokes and gags, the audience starts to feel as though the movie is alternating between dramatic and comedic on a scene-by-scene basis. This results in a very inconsistent experience for the viewer.
The filmmakers behind Masterminds got around this problem by casting actors known for their comedic talent. Although Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig, and Jason Sudeikis are all talented dramatic actors, most viewers immediately associate them with screwball comedies. Casting all three of them together in one film ensures that, even during relatively dramatic scenes, there’s still sufficient humor to maintain a reasonably consistent tone. Audience members are simply conditioned to expect humorous performances from these actors. They know that casting them together isn’t the type of decision a filmmaker would make if they were planning on shooting a straight drama.
In most purely dramatic crime films, the criminals are very good at what they do. The Godfather depicts mafiosi who are intelligent and disciplined. Scarface never lets the viewer see Tony Montana as anything other than a ruthless, confident kingpin. These are not criminals who make many mistakes.
That’s important to remember. In his book The Hidden Tools of Comedy, famous comedy writing expert Steve Kaplan points out that in many cases, the only difference between comedy and drama is how genuinely human the characters are. Dramas, despite being thought of as realistic films, tend to depict characters who are simply more perfect than the average person. While comedies may depict similar situations, they feature characters who possess and exhibit natural human flaws.
The filmmakers behind Masterminds understood this concept. The film’s very title is ironic, as it is clear throughout the movie that the characters are not cunning, clever thieves. While the characters are preparing to pull off the actual robbery, audiences are shown training sequences that prove they do not know what they are doing. By depicting human flaws, the filmmakers establish a comedic tone, despite the serious nature of the story.
Characters who are incompetent and possess human weaknesses can still manage to achieve their goals if the circumstances work in their favor. That’s why movies that tackle the subject of crime while also making audiences laugh are most successful when they stack the odds against the criminal characters. As the story progresses, they continue to find that they’re out of their depth.
This is the type of storytelling that filmmakers such as the Coen brothers do so well. They understand that it’s not enough for characters to be incompetent. They must also be constantly getting into deeper trouble.
That’s exactly what happens in Masterminds. While the film is by no means a rip-off of the Coen brothers’ style, it does possess many of the same storytelling qualities.
That’s why it works so well. Again, making this kind of movie can be extremely difficult. Filmmakers must strike the right balance of true crime and comedy. Masterminds manages to tell an engaging crime story in a funny way because the people who made it worked hard to balance both the dramatic and comedic elements. The result is one of the most entertaining crime films in recent years.