Movie Review: While Not As Good As The First One, MEN IN BLACK 3 Satisfies, If Only Just

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It is very tempting to overrate Men in Black 3 simply because it is so much better than it should be.  I mean, here’s a movie that went into production with only one-third of a completed shooting script (star Tommy Lee Jones famously remarked during production that there were “vast pieces of the script yet unwritten”).  That shut down production for four months to address the niggling story concerns.  That almost didn’t have the participation of series director Barry Sonnenfeld, who had a less-than-ideal time making the second movie and who Sony Pictures would have been more than happy to replace.  This thing should be the Almighty Train Wreck, yet it’s….watchable.  At the end of the day, Men in Black 3 exceeds the (incredibly) low standard that Men in Black 2 set, and that counts for something.  It isn’t as good – or as witty – as the stellar first entry, but as summer blockbusters go, it works more often than not.

Warning: the first thirty minutes are pretty grim.  Sonnenfeld and Tropic Thunder screenwriter Etan Cohen (receiving uncredited assists from Jeff Nathanson, David Koepp, and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” scribe Michael Soccio) drop right back into the prickly interplay between MiB agents K (Tommy Lee Jones) and J (Will Smith), but the magic is gone.  Ostensibly, K feels the years – and a deep, dark secret (is there any other kind in the cinema?) – weighing on him, and that inner turmoil has shut him off from his more emotionally open partner.  At least, that’s the story reason for the charisma void that Jones and Smith share.  Their rapport was the highlight of the first Men in Black, but now Jones looks like he’d rather pluck out his toenails than star in another sugary franchise movie (this is his least inspired, most phoned-in performance in a long while), and Smith turns up the mugging and manufactured charm to try and compensate.  It doesn’t work.

There are some pleasures to be had in this rough opening stretch: Rick Baker’s practical effects are, as always, magnificent (the sheer volume of his new alien creations is staggering), and Flight of the Conchords’ co-founder Jemaine Clement is a hoot as the Big Bad, a deadly space assassin named Boris whose whole body is comprised of puckered orifices that secrete horrible insectoid monsters, though these elements and Sonnenfeld’s pop-comic-book visual eye have to struggle against Smith and Jones whiffing it in the foreground.

Then Boris does something bad to K that puts the entire world at risk, and faced with global annihilation, J heads back in time to stop the alien brute – and, by proxy, to save K.  It’s right at this point that the movie starts righting itself.  You see, breaking the space-time continuum necessitates jumping off a very tall building (don’t ask), a contrivance that lets Sonnenfeld stage a virtuoso sequence where the free-falling J sees the development of the planet from the dinosaurs to 1969, and all in the time it takes him to go from the top of the Chrysler Building to the ground.

This scene is equal parts thrilling and amusing (and, I’d wager, terrifying to those of the height-fearing persuasion), and it kicks off Men in Black 3 in a big way.  Sonnenfeld clearly loves playing in the Swinging Sixties; his aesthetic preferences suggest he’s more than a casual fan of AMC’s “Mad Men.”  He also gets some good jokes out of J’s secondary predicament – namely, how a strong, confident African American man might be received in a society still harboring some overt racial prejudices – and he damn near redeems Tommy Lee Jones’ abominable work the minute Josh Brolin shows up as K, circa 1969, complete with flattened nose and Jones’ inimitable West Texas drawl.

Brolin alone makes Men in Black 3 worthwhile for the serious film fan (if nothing else, Redbox the Blu-ray in three months).  As a piece of mimicry, the actor’s work is stunning; it’s clear he’s spent hours assimilating his No Country for Old Men co-star’s mannerisms.  But he’s also able to replicate the chemistry that Smith and Jones had in Men in Black while developing their relationship further; his Agent K is far less weary and takes a genuine and enthusiastic interest in his future sidekick.  It’s a great turn, and it elevates the movie from “mediocre” to “haltingly good.”

I do wish it were funnier, though.  Outside of Bill Hader delivering some deadpan lunacy at the midpoint (Hader does a glorious Andy Warhol impersonation), Men in Black 3 is more content to serve up light chuckles than full-on humor; anyone expecting the rapid-fire gags of that initial Men in Black experience will walk away a mite disappointed (hell, Joss Whedon’s Avengers is way funnier than this one).

Still, you do get the sense that Sonnenfeld and Co. genuinely want to best Men in Black 2, meaning they keep the time-travel/alien-invasion intrigues engaging and toss in good supporting performances from the likes of Emma Thompson and Alice Eve.  Plus, A Serious Man star Michael Stuhlbarg almost steals the movie away from Brolin as an interdimensional being capable of viewing all possible timelines at once.  Stuhlbarg’s motormouth cadence suggests that he’s worried the future might change by the time he ends a sentence, a quirk that lends this expositionary part real humanity; in particular, he has a terrific scene where he just describes the glories of the 1969 Mets’ World Series victory.

Only the ending halts Men in Black 3‘s upward trajectory.  I don’t take issue with the Cape Canaveral setpiece that concludes the film (it’s fine, and it gives Clement a lot to do); rather, I wish that the film’s emotional core didn’t hinge on a character we barely know.  This move offers a way-too-neat twist ending and denies us real resolution to the Smith-Brolin dynamic, which is where Men in Black 3 should live.

Still, considering Sonnenfeld and his small army of script doctors probably constructed the end on the fly, I’m surprised what they devised was even halfway tolerable.  Maybe summer movies have grown so bad that competent mediocrity no longer offends (Christopher Nolan and Joss Whedon: I exempt your labors from this blanket declaration), but what else can I say?  I kinda enjoyed Men in Black 3.  Signs and wonders.

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