I love Steve Carell. Like with Paul Giamatti, I will see just about anything Carell is in just to bask in his unique balance of warmth and dryness and fearlessness. Despicable Me is a middling movie made better by casting him. Carell plays Gru, a run-down, insecure supervillain who has hit a professional wall, polishing his tarnished infamy alone in his exquisitely-detailed lair. Jason Segal plays Vector, the biggest brick in that wall, an up and coming super-villain with technological advantage but without a sense of legacy or greatness as much as self-aggrandizement and showmanship. Enter three orphaned girls and a demanding bank loan manager (Will Arnett) and you have the makings of what wanted to be a comic heist movie but is more a sweet redemption movie in clumsy comic heist drag.
Gru has a warm cuddly eastern European accent and a troubled relationship with his judgy, disapproving mother (Julie Freaking Andrews, people), and therefore everyone. Carell pulls out the stops making Gru imperious, unsteady, and still lovable. Gru’s methods and madness (and outrageously overdesigned villain accessories) generate some chuckles, but the laughs in this movie belong to Vector and his laughably hyperbolic lair. My companion definitely belly laughed out loud more than I did in general, but we both seemed immune to what the filmmakers seemed to thing the main laugh generator was: Gru’s minions. You’ve seen them, the little yellow capsule-men in goggles on all the posters? Yeah — apparently the filmmakers thought they would be the side characters that took off, like the penguins in the Madagascar movies. Really they are most like (and this is over-flattery) the Green Aliens from Toy Story, small inflexible side characters with limited ability to communicate with the other characters, who serve a specific purpose. Despicable Me’s producers appear to think that them just existing is purpose enough (though three of them do get a funny undercover op), and wrote reactive nonsense for them only.
So Gru, already the hero and the sympathetic focus of the story, also has to carry comedy that his character was not given much of. He’s the straight man specifically to make everyone else shine, but no one turned on all the lights. Why would you cast Russell Brand in a role as stuffed with potential as Dr. Nefario and then make him little more than a gruff Q-type? Or waste Will Arnett’s gift for brainless menace in a bank manager who doesn’t really get to do or say anything? Luckily for me, anyway, Carell and his considerable, if Emmy-ignored, vocal and acting talents are up to the task of adding as much complexity to his line readings as is needed to bring the movie from 2D to 3D. (We saw it in standard definition, non-stereoscopic cinema.) His animators do the rest with relatively subtle face work.
The orphans, quaintly named Margo, Edith, and Agnes, have a self-contained world of comedy and sweetness that they carry with them and which the rest of the movie tries to break into and steal. Come on, they are adorable but unwanted orphan girls! Supervillains exploiting orphan girls is funny! At the inevitable melting of Gru’s stony heart, the film turns into something else entirely. That which it turns into is sloppy and a little unsatisfying, but it is still irresistibly sweet, thanks to this little foursome. The sweetness is the best part (even if the ridiculous criminal capers were the funniest parts), followed closely by the fish out of water aspect of Gru trying to be a person with a heart. It is great that studios besides Pixar are trying to have some emotional depth in their stories, but I think to be really successful, the plot and feelings shouldn’t be compartmentalized away from each other. It’s worth seeing, but don’t go too crazy spending your money on it.
MPAA Rating PG
Release date 7/9/10
Time in minutes 95
Director Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
Studio Universal Pictures