"Despicable Me": A Bad Guy in a Not-So-Good Movie
By Tim Grierson
Jul 8, 2010

If you're looking for a real treat this weekend, check out The Kids Are All Right, which I saw and liked very much back at Sundance. But if lesbian-couple comedy-dramas aren't your thing, perhaps you'd be interested in an anodyne animated kids film or an art-house documentary.

Despicable Me (Universal Pictures)

There was a time not too long ago that any review of a mainstream animated movie that wasn't made by Pixar had to include a dismissive sentence along the lines of "This film lacks the heart, imagination and wit of Pixar." And while that statement was certainly true in general, in recent years the creative chasm between Pixar and everybody else has narrowed. Monsters vs. Aliens and How to Train Your Dragon in particular have elevated Dreamworks Animation's game, suggesting that while they have yet to make an outright classic, like Toy Story or Wall-E, they've learned to calm down on the cheap pop-culture referencing that marked the broad humor of their earlier efforts. Between Pixar, Dreamworks, Fantastic Mr. Fox and the superb personal animated films we've had lately (The Secret of Kells, Persepolis, Sita Sings the Blues, Waltz With Bashir), it's clear we really are in a golden age of animation, which is a constant relief amidst the dreck that the studios usually send our way.

So why then is there such a rush to rave about Despicable Me, a likeable but thoroughly disposable trifle? I may have deep reservations about Toy Story 3, but at least that film's craft and thoughtfulness are at impressively high levels. By comparison, this would-be chuckle-fest from directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud seems geared (or, more accurately, dumbed-down) to children in a way that seriously undercuts the enjoyment for anyone else.

In Despicable Me, super-villain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is in a bit of a slump, facing stiff competition from a young upstart named Vector (Jason Segel) who has lately been hogging the criminal limelight. To achieve his greatest evil plan, kidnapping the moon, Gru will need to steal the shrink-ray currently being housed by Vector in his impenetrable lair. Gru's only option? Adopt three female orphans who have sold Vector some cookies -- when the girls go back to deliver the goodies, Gru will infiltrate Vector's compound and confiscate the weapon. But as Gru is about to discover, it's hard to resist the charms of three adorable little kids, especially when they're movie-character kids.

While granting that Despicable Me is intensely affable, its premise wouldn't feel out of place from your typical Disney live-action movie starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. But narrative originality doesn't necessarily matter all that much if you've got characters and humor to compensate. But while the filmmakers have some fun exploiting the idea that their protagonist is actually a super-villain, the level of commitment to this gag never goes beyond the obvious and the safe. This is a movie geared to young people that doesn't want to scare its audience by actually having Gru (or, for that matter, Vector) be very bad. As Gru, Carell's primary creative choice was to give him an arch German accent, and screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul don't bother making him particularly nasty, clever or funny.

So if delicious nastiness isn't Despicable Me's thing, what is? Rampant, merciless cuteness. Whether it's Gru's diminutive yellow-skinned alien henchmen (I think they're aliens, anyway) or the three orphan girls Margo, Edith and Agnes, the film lays it on thick with its air of awwwwww. My hunch is that kids will eat these silly, adorable shenanigans up, but a decent amount of parents may, too. And it wasn't as if I wasn't susceptible to the film's eventual pulling of the heartstrings when Gru must ultimately decide whether to carry out his evil plan or be a good father to the kids. (I blame my response partly on the invasion of my niece and nephews over the recent Fourth of July weekend, a timely reminder that children have some sort of magical secret pathway into our emotional core.) But in this golden age of animation, likeable but only lightly amusing entries seem all the more forgettable by comparison. There's so much great work being done right now that it's downright perverse to praise a film that's mostly a good babysitting tool. 

Great Directors (Anisma Films/Paladin)

A minor documentary with an important-sounding title, Great Directors is practically begging for critical derision, and not just because its director, newcomer Angela Ismailos, inserts herself into the proceedings with a pretentious voiceover and even more pretentious shots of her walking in slow-motion while she (apparently) reflects on the words of her subjects. But as someone who admits to a weakness for cinematic overviews -- even those impossibly lame AFI 100 Years specials stir me a little -- I have to say that Great Directors works, almost in spite of its maker.

But first some background. Ismailos is a theater director who "has professionally studied opera all of her adult life," according to the film's press notes. And over the span of 86 minutes -- which, of course, isn't nearly long enough -- she separately interviews 10 filmmakers she admires, including David Lynch, Todd Haynes, Bernardo Bertolucci, Agnes Varda, and Stephen Frears. Compiling her footage by linking together shared themes and talking points, Ismailos isn't here to argue why these directors are "great" or to offer a comprehensive overview of their careers. She operates under the assumption that you already know their excellence and instead focuses on her subjects' philosophies about art, creativity, success, and failure. Great Directors is clearly geared to cineastes, although the uninformed will certainly be clued into a plethora of films that need to be added to their Netflix queue.

Ismailos makes the same mistake that so many contemporary documentarians do, which is that she thinks we're as interested in her as we are in what she's showing us. It's not that she needs impeccable credentials to pontificate about Ken Loach's early-period British documentaries, but she never convinces us that she's our surrogate for entering the world of these acclaimed filmmakers. Still, her ability to get this sort of access and to get these directors to speak so casually and frankly about their careers is impressive, which is easy to overlook when you're annoyed by her sometimes pompous air.

But when the filmmakers speak ... well, that's why you've chosen to see this movie, and they prove worthy of your time. More than an essay on filmmaking, Great Directors is a rumination on the artistic, nontraditional path, which should speak to people of many walks of life, not just folks in the movie business. And it's not all languid musing, either: As much as I (and so many other critics) love Safe, I don't think any of have so perfectly explicated its essence as Haynes does here. There are the usual stories of self-sufficiency and creative ups-and-downs, but what Ismailos pulls out of these men and women that's so special is a shared sense of what moviemaking and moviegoing is all about. The film is too short and therefore maddeningly incomplete. But once I decided to let go of my gripes, I found myself very happily giving myself over to it. Great Directors doesn't tell you a lot about its great directors, but as a roadmap on how to live artfully, it's rather inspiring. All I would ask is that when this film comes to DVD Ismailos include longer interviews with her (and our) objects of affection.

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