On twin brothers, loving (or hating) the '80s, and the inevitable diminishing returns of the reformed supervillain
Despicable Me 3 Universal Pictures
Director: Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda
Screenplay: Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio
Starring: Steve Carell, Trey Parker, Kristen Wiig, Nev Scharrel, Miranda Cosgrove, Jenny Slate, Steve Coogan, Dana Gaier and Julie Andrews
Rated PG / 1 hour, 30 minutes / 2.35:1
June 30, 2017
(out of four)
As a self-commentary, Despicable Me 3 is scathing. Its villain is a stand-in for itself - or its makers, anyway. Balthazar Bratt is an antiquated children's product stuck desperately in the past. Specifically, the 1980s. Those eighties are all he knows. They are his entire frame of reference, his entire livelihood, his entire schtick. His inability or unwillingness to go outside this comfort zone defines his entire identity, and it is ultimately his undoing. The film itself mirrors that paradigm.
The difference is, Balthazar at least has a deep-seated psychological excuse for his behavior - he's permanently stuck in the reality that gave him his greatest triumphs, and that made him a worldwide star, which in turn drove him mad. Despicable Me 3, written all too clearly by a pair of Gen-Xers, has no such excuse. It's just lazy. Its line of thought is simply: Let's make our new villain/co-lead a castoff '80s obsessive because we've got a bunch of '80s references burning a hole through our imagination pocket. The period-specific jokes, references and homages roll off the film's tongue like they're second nature, and no doubt screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have plenty more where those came from. But it's all too easy. It's easy to pile together random touchstones from your vast repository of pop-culture reference points if all you're trying to do is pile together random touchstones of pop-culture reference points. There's a huge difference between using what you know as a launching pad and using it as a crutch, or as an excuse not to grow. Paul and Daurio know this. The way they've written their antagonist proves they know it. Balthazar Bratt (voiced by South Park's Trey Parker) is a perpetual object of scorn. But by making a mockery of this character, they're making a mockery of themselves. They rely on, and cling to, their '80s knowledge just as doggedly as he does, and with the same sense of tunnel vision.
To an extent, my frustration at this movie's laziness may be exacerbated by the tired industry norms that cocoon it, even encourage it. Not only is this kind of referential framework pretty much the go-to formula for a lot of comedy - animated comedy in particular, dating back to the original Shrek (whose comedy was not a mere grab-bag of references but sharply deliberate and consistently clever layers of parody and satire) - but the '80s in particular are such a persistent source of "material" that I'm beginning to feel like I lived in that decade for more years than I did, and that I remember it far better than I do. My modest suggestion is that we just get the hell over the '80s already. Enough. It's been pretty well covered. Despicable Me 3 spits out, off the top of my head, track suits, shoulder pads, arcade games, disco balls, neon lighting, mullets, Reebok Pumps, carbonite-freezing, keytars, the Moonwalk, the Brat Pack, and various other fashion choices, lifestyles and pop icons of the MTV Generation. You know what? It's not even the reliance on this type of nostalgic referencing that bothers me; it's the utter lack of imagination in the way this nostalgia usually gets deployed. And, with respect to the man behind the camera, we still have next year's Ready Player One to, uh, "look forward" to. Maybe that movie will finally burst this bubble ... or, maybe it will encourage a whole new round of like-minded crap. I shudder at the possibility.
As a character and a subplot, Balthazar's tonal register is somewhere in the "obnoxious late 1980s commercial extolling the virtues of the brand new triple-barreled Super Soaker gun" range - I know it well - but it has to coexist with "tender domestic drama," "absurdist prison farce" and "madcap heist thriller," as directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda try to patch together something coherent out of Illumination Entertainment's signature brand. Less a cohesive movie and more a series of disconnected Gru Universe short films that are eventually forced to (awkwardly) converge for the finale, Despicable Me 3 is practically the definition of a franchise running on fumes. Having a one-movie premise (lonesome supervillain gains a family, reforms himself) kind of makes that inevitable. A second Despicable Me was enough of a stretch already (happy former supervillain finds a wife and a new line of work). A third one ... well, it's just taking what it can get. Did you know the Minions spinoff made $1.159 billion worldwide? This is going to go on forever, isn't it.
The third installment - understandably desperate for ideas - decides to go with the "long-lost twin brother" chestnut, as our pal Gru (who ceased to be entertaining once he was flattened from comically absurd supervillain into gentle suburban superdad) discovers that he has an identical twin halfway across the globe. Paul and Daurio assure us that they have seen Duck Soup by placing twin-brother Dru in the country of Freedonia. Dru is Gru's complete opposite, because the film couldn't be bothered to contrast the two characters in ways that might actually be interesting. Nope, just the obvious things: He wears white instead of Gru's trademark black. He has luscious blond hair to counter Gru's baldness. He is infectiously cheerful and optimistic, as opposed to Gru's grumpy demeanor. He is fabulously wealthy, while Gru has just lost his job at the Anti-Villain League and is suddenly very cash-poor. They even have different accents.
Once all those details have been introduced, the film fractures into vignettes, spreading its characters to their own narrative corners. Dru, despite making a fortune in the pig-farming business, has always truly wanted to be a supervillain, and has used his considerable resources to turn his estate into a secret headquarters that would make any Bond baddie jealous. He convinces Gru to get back in the game; Gru accepts only because he can use it as a pretext to steal a precious stone back from ol' Balthazar ... and then return it to the AVL, presumably getting back in the good guys' graces. While the two brothers are bonding over a new life of presumptive crime, Gru's wife Lucy - similarly sacked by the AVL - is trying to get into the good graces of Gru's three adopted daughters, who are still getting used to their new stepmom. And finally, there are the Minions, who walk out on Gru after his refusal to go back to villainy, and wind up on a sort of hive-mind walkabout that lands them into - and gets them out of - prison.
None of this is very good - some is especially interminable - but more than that, its whole structure seems calculated only to stretch out the runtime just enough for it to resemble a good movie while still still keeping all the established characters involved, if separated. As if the decree was, "Just get us to 90 minutes, any way you possibly can." Four halfhearted subplots later, they landed at 90 minutes exactly. There's not even a sensible pace to the way they unfold or the way they're put together. The dramatic beats are all over the place. One sequence involves a betrayal of one main character by another. This leads directly to a fight, which ends bitterly. A total of two scenes and 90 seconds later, we get the reconciliation scene, and the whole betrayal/fight has been forgotten. I mean, at least give an effort, Despicable Me 3.
And through it all, a movie that wants to be all about family bonding winds up getting its central personality (and enduring impact) not from any of its relationships but from the nostalgic hangups of its self-parody of a villain. The central message, like the central message of an alarming amount of work these days, is that the writers of this movie know a lot about what things were like in the eighties.