MINIONS: THE RISE OF GRU
It should probably go without saying that some movies don't need to be reviewed. (Of course, no movie really needs to be reviewed, but don't tell my bosses: That kind of attitude would put me out of a job.) Is it possible, though, that some movies simply can't be reviewed, at least in a manner that would be in any way insightful or helpful?
I definitely saw the animated comedy Minions: The Rise of Gru. I know because I have the online-payment receipt, and because I was lucky enough to see the film with my favorite eight-year-old, who was invested enough, and laughed enough, to make me relieved that our latest movie outing wasn't boring her. (Like most eight-year-olds, she inherently likes everything, but can also be a very tough crowd.) I know that director Kyle Balda's sequel/prequel to the Despicable Me franchise and 2015's Minions was inherently an origin story for Steve Carell's precociously nefarious über-villain – one that found him dissed by the Vicious 6 crime syndicate he hoped to join, and acting as Robin to the Batman mentor of a lovably crusty crook voiced by the lovably crusty Alan Arkin. Their scenes together were salty yet sweet; the Vicious 6 crew boasted the recognizable voices of Taraji P. Henson and, as the pincer-y Jean-Clawed, Jean-Claude Van Damme; the movie's 1976 setting led to a veritable K-Tel collection of song favorites from my youth. But really: The only things I actively remember from Minions: The Rise of Gru are the hilarious antics of Minions Kevin, Stuart, Bob, and Otto. And I barely remember them at all.
This isn't meant as a knock. Not a serious one, at any rate. But beyond thinking that the extended action finale was way too grandiose for the mostly charming spirit-of-'76 vibe the movie delivered – as if a particular Richard Linklater offering was suddenly infiltrated by Michael Bay – I enjoyed this fifth feature-length exposure to the Minions, enjoying my young friend's enjoyment even more, and promptly forgot nearly everything about it. Here are a few things I do recollect, however. Hordes of ambulatory yellow Tic Tacs cheerfully crooning a dialectically unfathomable take on Simon & Garfunkel's “Cecilia.” Otto's joy upon trading Gru's prized possession for a Pet Rock with googly eyes. Poor, exhausted Otto speed-racing his tricycle through the desert heat. His trio of compadres having the good luck to run into Michelle Yeoh. (We should all be so lucky.) Those three adorable buggers hijacking – and successfully piloting – a flight to San Francisco. Minions handling a San Francisco hill exactly the way you'd expect Minions to handle a San Francisco hill. And a faux funeral leading to something you never knew your soul needed: a Minions rendition of the Rolling Stones' “You Can't Always Get What You Want.” I'm not sure what I wanted from Minions: The Rise of Gru. But even though the experience largely passed as my friend and I left the auditorium, I'm pretty sure I got it.
MR. MALCOLM'S LIST
You know those generic sodas that try to replicate the formula for better-known labels yet have no distinct flavor of their own and are simply called “Cola” or “Lemon Lime”? Those soft drinks are to Coke and Sprite what Mr. Malcolm's List is to Jane Austen. Director Emma Holly Jones' 19th-century rom-com is satisfying enough, very much reminds you of the product you'd prefer, and might even make for a decent-enough substitute. But it's flatter than the thing you really like, doesn't deliver nearly the same tingle, and even while you're consuming it, you might be a bit put off by the aftertaste.
While Suzanne Allain's screenplay is based on her novel, that doesn't feel entirely accurate, as it appears to also be based on the entire Austen oeuvre – or at least the titles readers/moviegoers are most familiar with. It's like a stew of Emma, Pride & Prejudice, and Sense & Sensibility, plus a little Persuasion thrown in for seasoning. Set in 1818 England, Allain's plot would no doubt be Austen-approved, with the aging debutante Julia (Zawe Ashton) strong-arming her lower-class childhood pal Selina (Freida Pinto) into a vengeful scheme against Jeremiah Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), the wealthy bachelor who ghosted Julia after one date. Per the movie's title, the man also keeps a written list of attributes necessary in the woman he'll eventually marry, which would itself be reason for his comeuppance if (a) Julia weren't a ghastly shrew from the start; and (b) the voice-over narrator – one oddly never heard from again – didn't open the film by stating that Jeremiah was a truly marvelous human being and major catch. Consequently, as Selina halfheartedly agrees to pose as a woman of means who'll eventually break Malcolm's heart, there's nothing to do during Mr. Malcom's List but wait for these two honorable, impossibly attractive people to realize their secretly plotted love is for real – and, of course, wait for the inevitable Austen homages to drop. Hoo-boy, do they ever.
There's Theo James' cad-who-might-not-be-a-cad in the manner of S&S's John Willoughby. There's Ashley Park's giggly-spinster chatterbox à la Emma's Miss Bates. There are benignly sage parental figures out of every Austen ever. There's a dignified gala dance with rows of opposite genders standing opposite one another and advancing and retreating and walking around each other. There are avidly received hand-written notes and a shooting party and those horribly unflattering period dresses that look like nightgowns. And it's all as adamantly Austen-y as you could want without actually being Austen, and you absolutely feel the difference. This isn't Jane Austen; it's Jane Austen dress-up.
Although nothing in Jones' and Allain's effort is nearly as witty or emotionally piercing as even the least-engaging of its literary inspirations, there are a few perks beyond the commendable employment of color-blind casting. James' phenomenal screen charisma is among them, as is Ashton, the generally funny, eventually moving performer whose role doesn't make a lick of sense. (Julia's realization of her hatefulness is apparently enough to add 75 I.Q. points.) As strikingly beautiful as she is, however, Pinto is older here than Emma Thompson was playing Elinor Dashwood in 1995, yet is forced to act younger than Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996's Emma, which hampers the effectiveness, as does her unfortunate lack of chemistry with the quite-fine Dirisu. Mr. Malcolm's List is a passable, handsomely designed time-killer, but nothing more, and I started growing hostile toward the film when it clearly needed to follow the Austen blueprint by the letter even when its plotting in no way earned a surfeit of Happily Ever Afters. By the climax, I was so annoyed by this blueprint approach that I muttered, out loud, “Here comes the dual wedding with the dance around the maypole.” And then, astonishingly, that event didn't occur, and we scooted right to the end credits. So I guess the movie isn't completely void of surprises.