On August 28, 2003, Erie, Pennsylvania became home to the most diabolical bank robbery in U.S. history. A pizza delivery man named Brian Wells was lured out on a call, then ambushed by attackers who locked a bomb around his neck and demanded he rob a bank in exchange for its removal. Wells would die that day, leaving behind the question of whether he was an accomplice, a victim, or both.
Netflix revisits the twisted case of Brian Wells in Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist. In this documentary series, filmmakers Trey Borzillieri and Barbara Schroeder interview the officers and FBI agents who worked the case, the news reporters who covered it, and the locals who lived through it. But most crucially, they speak at length with Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, the convicted mastermind and alleged “evil genius,” who has more than the death of Wells at her feet.
This story might ring a bell, either because you remember the worldwide news coverage of the collar-bomb bank robber, or because you’ve seen 30 Minutes Or Less, a studio comedy that came out one year after Diehl-Armstrong’s conviction. Watching the first two episodes of Evil Genius made me curious about the 2011 comedy I missed at the time of its release. How close did it come to the real thing? And did it really intend to poke fun at a gruesome crime that concluded with a man exploding on live television?
Screenwriters Matthew Sullivan and Michael Diliberti won praise for their original spec script 30 Minutes Or Less in 2009, when it scored a coveted spot on the Black List, a collection of “the best” unproduced scripts circulating Hollywood. Its logline read simply: “A comedy about a pizza delivery guy on an unlikely caper.”
By 2010, Ben Stiller’s production company was in development on the dark comedy. In May of 2011, THR reported Zombieland’s Jesse Eisenberg and director Ruben Fleischer would reteam for 30 Minutes or Less, which already had Aziz Ansari and Danny McBride on board. None of this news coverage made mention of Wells or the crime that took his life.
It wasn’t until right ahead of the film’s August release—nearly 8 years to the day of the robbery—that news sources caught on to the similarities between this comedy and the infamous Wells case. Then, a Sony rep claimed “neither the filmmakers nor the stars of 30 Minutes or Less were aware of the crime prior to their involvement in the film.”
Wells’s family wasn’t buying it. His sister told the Associated Press, “It’s hard for me to grasp how other human beings can take delight and pride in making such a movie and consider it a comedy… I don’t think it’s funny to laugh at the innocent who are victimized by criminals, who care nothing for human life.”
Here’s a rundown of how they compare. Is 30 Minutes Or Less based on the Wells case? Judge for yourself.
The Pizza Delivery Guy
Set in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 30 Minutes or Less follows Nick (Eisenberg), a crass twenty-something pizza boy, who is described as a “manchild” who eat Lunchables for dinner and teases his best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) about the time he slept with Chet’s twin sister. (“You’re twins. Did you feel it when I was fucking her?”)
Mama Mia Pizzeria employee Brian Wells was 46 at the time of the crime, and was described by his landlady as “very friendly, very nice, almost child-like.” She also noted his love of puzzles, particularly the scavenger hunt advertised in the local newspaper.
Wells’s family has long defended his good name and insisted on his innocence, but some believe that Wells was a willing accomplice in the crime. One investigator interviewed in Evil Genius remarked that Wells’s calm behavior during the robbery does not suggest a man who believes an actual bomb is locked to his person. However, no physical evidence was recovered at Wells’s home that tied him to the bomb’s building.
30 Minutes Or Less offers a deranged duo who are crude, loud-mouthed, trigger-happy man-children with major daddy issues who spur a plan for patricide. Furious and impulsive Dwayne (Danny McBride) convinces his best friend Travis (Nick Swardson), who is mechanically skilled and loyal to a fault, to make him a bomb for a kidnapping/robbery plan.
Mechanically gifted eccentric William “Bill” Rothstein lived near the location where Wells was ambushed and affixed to a bomb. But he didn’t come into police’s sights until he called them about a dead man in his freezer. He blamed his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong for the corpse, but raised eyebrows with his unprompted declaration, “This has nothing to do with the Wells case.”
Evil Genius introduces Rothstein at the end of episode one, via his call to the police. Episode two digs into his tumultuous and decades-long relationship with Diehl-Armstrong, her “nasty” and selfish character, and her string of old boyfriends who have ended up dead. Diehl-Armstrong is credited as the brains behind the bank robbery, but some believe that Rothstein was her accomplice and the maker of the bomb that killed Wells.
Tired of waiting for his father to die to get his inheritance, Dwayne hires a hitman named Chango (Michael Peña). But to pay for the hit, Dwayne needs money, so “let’s force some dumb motherfucker to rob a bank for us.”
Following the arrest of Diehl-Armstrong, her fishing buddy Kenneth Barnes claimed she had tried to hire him to kill her father, who she felt was wasting away the fortune she’d hoped to inherit. It was Barnes’s belief that she set up the bank robbery to fund the hit.
At the end of his shift, Nick delivers a pizza to a remote location, a junkyard. There, he is ambushed by two men in gorilla masks. They strap a bomb to him and demand he rob a bank if he wants to live. They give him directions and nine hours to pull off the heist.
At the end of his shift, Wells delivers a pizza to a remote location, a radio station transmission tower at the end of a dirt road. Before his death, Wells told police it was there that “black people” accosted him and strapped the bomb to him. (Police found no evidence that black people had anything to do with the crime.) Long handwritten notes directed how to carry off the robbery, and where to go tp find more notes, more locations, and ultimately the key to unlock the bomb from his neck. In Evil Genius they refer to it as a scavenger hunt, not unlike the kind Wells was known to relish.
Nick and Chet carry toy guns, wear ski masks, and demanded $100,000. They order everyone in the bank to lie on the ground, and accidentally shoot someone. Confronted by police, Nick flashes the bomb to scare them off, then comes a wacky car chase.
Wells entered the bank without a mask, but carried a cane-gun. He handed the clerk a note demanding $250,000. No one was taken hostage or hurt; he was in and out without a major incident. Police apprehended him shortly afterward.
The masterminds in 30 Minutes Or Less warn the pizza delivery boy not to try to take off the bomb vest, because it is booby-trapped and has remote detonation capabilities. It’s a C4-bomb strapped to his chest, which can be hidden under his oversized jacket.
The bomb that killed Wells had fake booby-traps all over the device. Evil Genius reveals how there were wires with no purpose, and a cell phone meant to look like the bomb had remote detonation, which it did not. The bomb was locked onto its victim like a giant handcuff around his neck. A collar clicked into place, and demanded two keys to be unlocked. Its makers gave Wells 55 minutes before detonation.
Dwayne planned to kill the pizza deliveryman by setting off the bomb anyway, to assure no loose ends. But Nick survives and uses his brush with felony and death as a wake-up call that inspires him to confess his feelings to Chet’s sister, quit his shitty job, and finally stand up for himself. He escapes Dwayne, Travis and Chango, gets the girl, the money, and a happy ending.
Wells ran out of time. Eerie police called for a bomb squad. But they didn’t arrive in time. When the bomb started beeping, Wells begged for help to no avail. News cameras reporting live captured the fatal explosion, which is shown in Evil Genius. Investigators later tested to see if Wells could have possibly completed the scavenger hunt before the bomb’s timer went off, and determined it was impossible. Whoever strapped that bomb on Wells did it with full knowledge it would kill him.
Evil Genius hits Netflix on on May 11th.