Film Review: Despicable Me 3

Gru and crew test new family bonds in an ’80s-crazy adventure that’s a hair too slick, yet still a fine showcase for Steve Carell.
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A boldly traceable line leads directly from Steve Carell’s breakout role playing comically strange and repressed in The 40-Year-Old Virgin to his Oscar-nominated performance as the frighteningly strange and repressed John du Pont in Foxcatcher. Along the way, the actor has consistently channeled a similarly devious oddball energy in a more endearing and even more box-office-friendly direction voicing Gru, the former arch-villain, turned Anti-Villain League agent of the Despicable Me series.

Now happily married to his League agent partner, Lucy (Kristen Wiig), and a suburban dad to daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel), Gru might be pining a bit for his days of dastardly attempts to take over the world. Despicable Me 3, directed by returning Minions masters Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin, wastes no time handing Gru an opportunity to get back in the villain game, with the help of the twin brother, Dru, that his undermining Mom (Julie Andrews, hilariously mean) never mentioned. This installment of the makeshift-family series hints throughout that delusions of world domination fall lower on the villain scale than the cruelty of taking pleasure in crushing a loved one’s dreams.

With the mother he’s had, and the father he didn’t, Gru is especially careful in approaching the universal parenting conundrum of how to tell one of his kids the hard truth without bursting her bubble. Carell shines in dad mode and, playing both Gru and Dru, develops subtle, effective shades of difference as twins who grew up separately, yet remarkably the same. It’s not necessarily a multiple-character performance to stand alongside the best of Alec Guinness or Eddie Murphy, but at least the audience is spared the uncanny CGI creepiness of live-action Carell twins. Instead, the film rolls with the preferably droll visual of bald-pated Gru and his lushly flaxen-haired bro.

The fourth feature film of a billion-dollar enterprise goes big visually, with outlandish spy action sequences and marvelously inventive character animation. The plot, though, stretched thin among many hastily rendered subplots, feels slight, particularly the treatment of Lucy’s status as a New Mom, now that she’s married into co-parenting three young lives. Neither this film, nor the previous sequel dealt much (at all?) with whether the erstwhile single and childless Lucy ever wanted kids. They wanted her, so there.

Standing—and again, only slightly—in the way of all this family togetherness is the film’s ultimate villainous villain, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a Michael Jackson-obsessed ex-child star, popular in the ’80s, whose pain from losing fame has curdled into deliriously evil spite. Finding his inner Corey, Parker sounds jazzed, and suspiciously like Ryan Reynolds. Considering the “South Park” and Book of Mormon co-creator’s wicked humor, the vocal resemblance could be a pointed comment on a successful actor he knows, or just a choice that worked for everyone. That comic meta-duality rests also in the naming of the character, if one recalls that an actual actor named Bratt already has played a prominent role in this franchise.

In any case, the filmmakers let Balthazar Bratt’s “I Love the ’80s” song selection do most of the talking for him, a ploy that works when it works, but doesn’t always work. Nena’s “99 Luftballons” is four minutes of pop-music perfection that deserves better than its constant use as a glaring decade signpost. As for Bratt, it’s in how he throws down his MJ moves, shimmying and locking his way through heists, that he best distinguishes himself. To cop a line from Jessica Rabbitt, the character’s not that funny, he’s just drawn that way. Thus, whenever he’s the smooth criminal, neck-rolling his crested mullet through a dance-fight, he’s gleefully entertaining. But while in his lair, plotting or threatening, instead what registers is the fallen child star’s bitterness. A villain needs some root-ability, and Bratt lacks it. In the movie, that is why Balthazar Bratt, the teenage actor, was rejected by the public, so…success?

Bratt constitutes a surprisingly dark and predictably eccentric take on what the late, great Carrie Fisher called the devastating state of being an ex-celebrity. He refers to his gang of minions—angry, robotic toy versions of himself—as the “Bratt Pack,” one of countless 1980s pop-culture references, many of which are just that, references. The film does make delightful use of a totally ’80s Keytar, as well as the electronic game Simon and another Europop signpost, A-ha’s “Take on Me.” But the A-Team quote, the Rubik’s cube: We get it, Bratt’s stuck in the ’80s.

So have many mainstream comedies, in the two decades since The Wedding Singer, also gotten stuck pandering with Reagan-era nostalgia rather than spinning it into solid gold. The standard pop-culture suspects get checked off with less and less imagination year after year. Despicable Me 3 fares no better or worse in that regard, but at least delivers invention and spectacle with its lively animation, while Carell supplies true alchemy as Gru and Dru, whose brotherly love sings with genuine warmth and affection.

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