July 03--Comedy. Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig and Benjamin Bratt. Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud. (PG. 98 minutes.)
It's a credit to "Despicable Me 2" that the writing can be so funny in the moment, that it takes time to realize there's no cohesive story, zero dramatic tension and nary a practical lesson for either the characters in the film or the people watching in the theater.
This is the difference between eating a really good cheeseburger with an ocean view and eating the same cheeseburger at your desk at work. The second cheeseburger is still satisfying. But Jimmy Buffett will never write a song about the experience.
Illumination Entertainment's original "Despicable Me" in 2010 was more focused, following clumsy James Bond villain caricature Gru as he meets and falls for three foster children. The ending feels complete, but the movie made a lot of money, and you can imagine the desperate pitch meeting for the sequel: "Let's give Gru a love interest!" "Maybe do more stuff with those Minions." "Have him fight a villain who's a Mexican wrestler this time!" "How about something with a shopping mall?" "Let's borrow from the second half of 'Gremlins! '"
They settled on "all of the above," pairing Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) with newcomer Lucy (Kristen Wiig), an agent who shares his combination of social awkwardness and capacity for mayhem. In a typically offbeat aside, Gru's super-villain lair is now being used to make a line of designer jams and jellies. Gru and Lucy must search a mall for a mystery villain's serum, which is capable of turning his cute yellow Minions into purple (but still cute) killing machines.
There's a lot to like, or at least laugh at. Carell once again makes an effort voicing Gru, with an emotional core at the center of that ridiculous accent. Writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul embrace the over-the-top tone, finding offbeat fun in Gru's tendency to announce the nature of his secret weapon before firing it.
The animation isn't elite, so the filmmakers go for broke with the 3-D presentation, which harkens back to the comin'-at-ya gimmickry of the 1950s and 1980s. (Once in a while, it's OK to use this medium to blow bubbles into the theater.) And finally, working like cinematic spackle, are the Minions, who look like a combination of R2-D2 and that cute kid with glasses in "Jerry Maguire." These asides, used as filler, play like short films in the middle of the larger work. No surprise a Minion-focused "Despicable Me" spin-off is set for next year.
It all moves along nicely, until you realize the narrative isn't really moving at all. Boyfriend trouble and stalled class projects are all the girls have to do. With no real purpose, Gru's middle adopted child practically gets Jan Brady-ed out of the plot. If she was visible in flesh and blood instead of tiny pixels, you'd feel sorry for the actress.
I'm writing this paragraph less than 48 hours after seeing the film, and the ending was so lackluster I don't remember the details. My notebook says "Sort of rips off 'Friends.' " Was there a plane involved? A monkey? Did Gru go to Yemen?
The makers of the sequel could have shuffled the storyboards like a deck of cards, and the movie wouldn't have suffered much. The 8-year-olds next to you would still be laughing nonstop at the slapstick overkill. And the parents next to them would still be thankful that the theater has air conditioning. During a hot summer with limited choices, that just might be worth the money.
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @PeterHartlaub
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