Film Review: Despicable Me

Steve Carell stars as aging supervillain in animated adventure

2010 – 95mn - U

Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud. With the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Kristen Wiig, Julie Andrews, Jermaine Clement.

Review by Walter Nichols

FROM the same people behind Ice Age and Horton Hears a Who!, Despicable Me is the story of Gru (Steve Carell), a middle-aged criminal mastermind who lives in a black house with a dead lawn (and an underground hideout) in the otherwise white-picket-fence suburbs. He has a devil-dog for a pet and a tendency to freeze the people ahead of him in the coffee shop queue when he can’t be bothered to wait. But Gru hasn’t had a big hit in a while, and his financial backers are threatening to replace him with a younger, hipper villain, Vector (Jason Segel). Vector – a sort of evil Bill Gates in a jumpsuit and bowl cut – is making his name for himself by stealing national monuments, from the Great Pyramids to the Eiffel Tower. Gru decides to one-up him by stealing the moon – but his plan is sidetracked when three orphan girls visit his home, and set their hearts on him as their new Dad.

It sounds a little scatterbrain, and it is, but – at least in the first ten minutes – in a good way. Unfortunately, the delightfully surreal world the premise sets up is never quite kept up, and things get much more run-of-the-mill after the kids move in with Gru. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t know where else to take it, so they fall back on tired, almost sitcom situations of missed dance recitals to express Gru’s struggle with fatherhood; and loud, slapstick action scenes to make up his quest to steal the moon.

There’s none of the genius that makes a Pixar film here, and the overall story is weak even by children’s film standards. But the film has energy to spare, plenty of sweet and colorful characters, and even, for mom and dad, a few choice jokes at the expense of the bankers and financiers responsible for the recession. The soundtrack, partly created by hip-hop artist Pharrell Williams, is also deliciously off-beat and unexpected.

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The best part of Despicable Me, however, is Steve Carell. This can be said of any film Carell is in, but here all we get is his voice, and he twists it wonderfully. The actor has described Gru’s accent as “a cross between Ricardo Montalban and Bela Lugosi”, which is accurate enough. He gives the villain just enough cheesy Eastern European malevolence, just enough Bond villain exoticism, and just enough Peter Sellers nonsense for him to be utterly likeable from the very first time he opens his CG-animated mouth. The feat he achieves is that, while you root for Gru throughout, you never forget that in any other film he would be the baddie, and it’s that simple element of peering through the looking glass that sustains the film.

Beyond Carell, though, the film is lazily cast, with voices contributed by every halfway-hot comedian in the Western world, from Russell Brand, Jermaine Clement, and Kristen Wiig to Mindy Kaling, Danny McBride and Jack McBrayer. It’s hard to understood why – most of their voices are unrecognizable, and the character work lazy; Brand especially is a shocking distraction. The marketing of the film revolves around the Minions, funny little creatures who assist Gru, and the film spends way too much time on them as well. It quickly, and sadly, becomes irritating.

Star rating: 3 out of 5 stars