Filmmaker Mike Leigh's biography of the landscape painter J.M.W. Turner is what critics call "austere"—which means it's slow and grim and deliberately hard to love—yet…
I won't make any grand claims for the "Despicable Me" films as art, but I adore them anyway. There's something appealingly relaxed and confident about them. They don't quite look, move or feel like any other blockbuster animated cartoons, yet they never seem to be trying too hard. They remind me of a guy I saw dancing at a tango demonstration a couple of weeks ago, a Uruguayan named Hugo. He was impossibly tall, and shaped like a church bell, and when he danced, he took very tiny steps, yet each one was purposeful without seeming premeditated. His spiraling movements across the floor made me think of a big broom gently sweeping, sweeping.
The original "Despicable Me" didn't knock itself out trying to write an airtight comedy plot that lined up beats and knocked them down. It was lackadaisical in places, calculatedly so, as if the filmmakers had studied the kinds of movies that Pixar and DreamWorks and other big animations houses were making, then decided, "We could try to do that, but it wouldn't be as good, because our hearts wouldn't be in it, so we're gonna clown instead, maybe tug at the heartstrings a little, and have Pharrell Williams write up-tempo R&B songs that seem as though they'd be all wrong for a movie like this but are in fact perfect."
The result was more memorable than the other heavily-hyped "villain-as-hero" cartoon that came out that year, "Megamind," because it wasn't straining to bowl us over. When the songs kicked in, it turned chill, or as a seventies kid might put it, groovy. Watching the first "Despicable Me" reminded me of being ten or eleven and discovering the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello for the first time, and realizing that slapstick comedy wasn't about story, but situation. The filmmakers create memorable characters, hire great actors to play them, and expend all their energy maneuvering them into and out of preposterous situations. The resultant silliness is the show, just as musical numbers are the show in musicals, and fight scenes are the show in kung fu pictures. Think of Inspector Clouseau in "The Pink Panther Strikes Again," disguising himself with a fake putty nose and pretending to be the deranged former Chief Inspector Dreyfus' dentist, then giving him laughing gas and getting high on it himself; or the Marxes running around on an ocean liner in "Monkey Business" or chopping up pieces of an Old West locomotive to keep it moving at the end of "Go West"; or Jim Carrey being "born" out of the hindquarters of a mechanical rhino in "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective 2," naked and screaming and covered in slime, while tourists on safari snap photographs.
This new "Despicable Me" takes the lessons of the first picture to heart and tries to push them even further. The result occasionally suggests what we know in our hearts has to be an oxymoron: an improvised animated film. There's barely a plot, and what plot there is seems a joke on the very idea of plot. Most of the showdowns occur in and near a mall and an immense Tex-Mex restaurant, and the rules of geography time barely apply to any of the characters, who just show up where and when they're needed, or not wanted, sometimes in the blink of an eye. When villain-turned-hero Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) backs away from his nemesis El Macho (Benjamin Bratt), who's just tried to rope him into a villainous scheme, the animators build on the star's silly-accented stammering with a series of remarkable hand-gestures that amount to a meta-parody of the idea of "deception"; they reminded me of Chevy Chase as Fletch, not even bothering to sell the whopping lies that the character tells people. Agent Lucy Wilde (Kristin Wiig) is the perfect romantic match for Gru, at once James Bond-level super-competent and a Clouseau-style bumbler. She has to restrain herself from blurting out whatever's in her head, and usually fails. "You know, you should really announce your weapons, after you fire them," she tells Gru, after successfully fending off a raygun attack. "For example: lipstick taser!"
I don't think it's at all coincidental that the film becomes truly sublime when it stops telling its own story, slams on the brakes and lets Gru's pipsqueak minions go tear-assing around in the frame wreaking unnecessary destruction, or staging elaborately choreographed musical numbers sung entirely in gibberish. Do I sound a thousand years old when I tell you that the Minions' songs remind me of Danny Kaye? I do? Oh, well.
One of the strangest, most pleasing aspects of all is how the series seems to understand single parents on a deep level. I've never tried to steal the moon, as Gru did in the first film, but I know what it's like to have your daughter (adopted daughter in Gru's case) threaten to crumple up in tears at the possibility that a scheduled "fairy princess" won't arrive at her birthday party. Gru's solution—dressing up in drag and making his entrance via cables held by Minions on the eaves of his gingerbread mansion—is much more elaborate than anything I could dream up. "Why are you so fat?" a child asks Fairy Princess Gru. "Because my house is made out of candy," the hero snarls, "and sometimes I eat it instead of facing my problems!" But I understand the essence of the conundrum, just as I understand Gru's discomfort at being "set up" by well-meaning female friends with women I've never heard of, and his terror at asking a woman out on a date—the terror stemming not from the prospect of initial rejection, but from the possibility that you'll end up staying together for years and yet it won't really add up to much in the end, because you're fundamentally incompatible, or because one of you is flat-out lying to the other in some basic way. All that is hard enough to contemplate when you're single without kids; add kids into the equation—particularly very young kids who're looking to add another parent-figure to their life mix—and it's harder still. It's another layer, or layers, and sometimes a part of you thinks, "Ah, who needs it?"
The "Despicable Me" films get all this on a deep level, yet they communicate their understanding in pleasingly casual, often purely visual ways—by showing Gru slumped in a chair at a restaurant or staring out into space from the discomfort of his rain-slicked front stoop, thinking about the gal he might have ended up with if things had gone differently, then realizing he could could end up with her anyway, if he could only swallow his fear and take action and then not worry the relationship to death. The "Despicable Me" films are my second favorite current portrait of single parenthood after FX's great sitcom "Louie." Watching them, I feel understood.
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