Despicable Me 4

“Despicable Me 4” won’t win any prizes, but if you like this kind of thing, you’ll like this thing. I laughed. The dumber and more random the jokes, the harder I laughed. The kids I saw it with laughed harder.

Often what’s onscreen is humor no more sophisticated than a young father pretending that he’s trying to put a sock on his son’s foot, intentionally missing it over and over, and yelling “Whoops!” each time. Gru, the reformed bad guy turned bad-guy-battler who was introduced in the 2010 original, is a try-hard dad-as-amateur-entertainer, muttering nervous inanities even when no actual children (or childlike minions) are around to interact with. He’s the ex-supervillain as Silly Daddy, never funnier than when he’s making a fool of himself on purpose or by accident.  

Directed by Chris Renaud, who directed the first two entries in the series plus “The Secret Life of Pets” movies, this one feels stitched together — not in a lazy or distracted way, but in a deliberate, “We are making the kind of comedy that collects a bunch of stuff that we find funny and binds it with wisps of plot” way. The result is hit and miss but likably irreverent overall. It’s a film in the vein of a pretty good Mike Meyers or Will Ferrell movie, a Peter Sellers-era Inspector Clouseau comedy (the kind where they’d spend five minutes on a slapstick karate fight), or late-period Marx Brothers, where the “boys” are pushing sixty and letting stuntmen handle most of the slapstick, but you laugh anyway because everyone involved knows what works. 

Will Ferrell plays the bad guy in this one — a snooty Frenchman named Maxime Le Mal who attended Lycée Pas Bon, Gru’s alma mater (essentially Supervillain Hogwarts). Maxime blames Gru for a humiliation at the school talent show and has been stewing over it for decades. At a class reunion, Maxime (backed by his girlfriend Valentina, voiced by Sofia Vergara) seeks vengeance by transforming himself into a genetically engineered cockroach man, gets arrested and confined to a supervillain prison, then breaks out and re-teams with Valentina and an army of intelligent cockroaches in tiny Army helmets to wage war on Gru, his wife Lucy (Kristin Wiig) and his adorable children. and kidnap the family’s new baby, Gru, Jr. (New Gru instinctively loathes daddy and refuses any attempt to be won over. You can see where this part of the movie is headed.) 

The movie then relocates Gru and his family to a run-down house in a pretentious suburb full of McMansions and assigns them backstories and preppy-sounding code names that they can’t remember (supposedly Gru is a solar panel salesman and Lucy an elite hairdresser). The movie seems to be setting the stage for a “Cape Fear” riff where relentless criminals (and mayhem-inclined former criminals) wreak havoc on hypocrites and squares, only to keep Maxime and Valentina out of the main story until fairly late in the movie. Much potentially lively tomfoolery between Gru and Maxime gets lost this way. 

But broad humor compensates, including a scene where a wealthy victim of Lucy’s incompetent hair care chases her through a supermarket like the T-1000 in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (of course they quote Brad Fiedel’s score). There’s also early-“Simpsons” visual marginalia that sends up the blandly cheerful consumerism of American culture. The supermarket’s cereal section offers Skinny Bits, Fluffy, and Atomic Sugar Bombz, The design of the suburbanites caricatures wardrobe, grooming, and plastic surgery/Botox cliches in a way that might make some parents feel seen in a mortifying way. Potential recurring characters are added to the core cast, notably the teenage girl next door, Poppy Prescott (Joey King), who wants to be a supervillain and drags Gru into a half-baked scheme to steal a mascot from his former school. 

There’s a lot more to the film’s story, such as it is. But what passes for plot in the script (cowritten by Ken Daurio and Mike White, who teamed on Illumination’s “Migration”) is really more like actionable information, offered to the filmmakers so that a joke or a chain reaction of interlocked gags can be set up and paid off. There are times when it feels as if White and Daurio are writing less for structure’s sake and more to provide the voice actors and animators with raw material that can build to a wild sight gag with weird grace notes, as when Gru accidentally jabs himself in the leg with a hypodermic needle full of sedative, then rides a Minion like a miniature burro while using his useless leg as a riding crop. 

Other moments are fleeting, rooted in a character’s distinctive body language, and can be savored in the way that you’d savor a detail in a live action comedy performance, like Poppy and her dog playing Dance Dance Revolution (both with the same rigid “in the zone” face), or Gru nearly getting swallowed up by Poppy’s beanbag chair and then daintily crossing his legs at the knees. Of course the Minion army is on the slapstick case, too. They’re all-in, Three Stooges style, pranking and slapping and drenching each other in viscous substances while chortling and babbling and giggling. There’s even a moment where an authority figure tells a crowd of Minions about a dangerous experiment and asks for volunteers, and all the Minions standing behind the ones in the first row step backward. The dinosaurs laughed at that one.

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