The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Despicable Me was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
Despicable Me opens with a rarity in family films, an honestly funny sequence that borders on subversive: a pyramid is shown in the Egyptian desert. Almost immediately, the peace and reverence of the sight is rudely interrupted by a noisy bus pulling up with “Sweet Home Alabama” blaring on the soundtrack. A fat, American family squeezes off the bus and proceeds to be obnoxious and annoying in the worst “ugly Americans” kind of way. The sequence ends with the fat American kid falling from scaffolding and landing on a pyramid, only to bounce back into the air as it deflates, exposing it as a fraud. It’s rare for a family film to make me laugh as much as these five minutes did, let alone take such a knowing look at the way much of the rest of the world views Americans. I was surprised and primed for the film to take me in new directions. The fact that it didn’t only makes the disappointment that much worse.
Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is a super-villain who has only been mediocre in his career in villainy. Aided by the elderly Dr. Nefario (voiced by Russell Brand) and a gaggle of assistants called minions (disturbing creatures that look like Twinkies with limbs and goggles), he is constantly plotting to do as much evil as possible. When we meet him, he’s obsessed with stealing the moon to trump the super-villain who managed to steal the actual pyramid. Thus begins a busy plot that includes shrink-rays, the Bank of Evil (the sign over the door reads: “Formerly Lehman Brothers”), a rival super-villain named Vector (voiced by Jason Segel), and three adorable orphan girls. Not surprisingly, it’s with the orphan girls that the film loses most of its steam.
I had a lot of fun with the first act of the film. Gru is not some pretender at evil, he walks the walk. He drives a vehicle that puts out more smog than a highway packed with Hummers. He not-so-subtly threatens to kill his neighbor’s dog. Perhaps his most sinister trait is the fact that he cuts in line at the coffee shop. That these early scenes portray him as a villain lends freshness to the film and kept me interested even as the plot chugged along hitting each beat without surprise or variation. Once Gru recruits the three orphan girls to help him infiltrate Vector’s lair to steal a shrink-ray, I knew the fun was all over. As soon as the girls appeared on screen, my heart sank as I just knew they were going to worm their way into Gru’s black heart and turn him into a nice guy who learns a lesson about love and family. And that’s exactly what happened.
Carell and Brand do nice vocal work, trying to add layers to their characters with voices that sound nothing like we’ve come to expect from them. Will Arnett also has fun with his gravelly voice as the scary Bank of Evil loan officer. It’s with the casting of Jason Segel as Vector that the filmmakers stumble. In trying to play up the nerdiness of Vector, he just comes across as grating. Every time Vector appeared on screen, an ache would start to pulse behind my temples. Needless to say, this is never a good sign.
I wish I could say that I liked Despicable Me more than I did. It’s not a bad family film, but it adds nothing new to the genre that we haven’t seen a thousand times before. I would blame my indifference on my obviously evil critic’s heart, but I would direct you to my review of Toy Story 3 to prove I’m human and susceptible to the tugging of heart strings. No, the truth is that Despicable Me was just a lot more entertaining when Gru was still despicable.
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