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Entries in Men in Black 3 [2012] (1)

Saturday
May262012

Men in Black 3 (2012)

No Galaxy for Old Men

It's quite possible that a pair of clandestine government agents blasted me with a neuralizer as I left Men in Black 3. How else to explain my enthusiasm for a movie I'd expected to hate, and with which I still have huge problems?

Let's back up a moment. I don't remember anything about Men in Black 2, except for the experience of going to see it. On July 4th, 2002, my wife and I made record time in traveling from the city to the suburbs; the highway was so free of cars and cops that the hour-long trip took about twenty minutes. As a recent Chicago transplant, I was uncomfortable driving to any of the closer theatres, and instead chose a remote but familiar multiplex. Suffice it to say the drive home was significantly longer--not because of additional traffic, but because we were in a profound funk. Men in Black 2 was terrible beyond redemption. I assume it still is.

To be clear, the stink on that film is so strong that I would have blown off the second sequel entirely if my job didn't keep me from doing so. But director Barry Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Etan Cohen have sufficiently made amends with this new movie, delivering at once a big, dumb summer blockbuster and a nifty bit of sci-fi that quietly makes a case for its existence.

The premise feels embarrassingly old hat: a slimy alien criminal named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escapes a lunar prison and crash-lands on Earth. He plans to procure a time travel device that will allow him to kill Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) in the past. In 1969, the two had a dust-up during the first space shuttle launch, resulting in Boris losing an arm and K gaining another device that created an Earth-sized laser shield, which kept an alien invasion at bay. Boris succeeds in wiping K from history--except in the mind of his partner, J (Will Smith).

J follows Boris back in time to Manhattan, where he runs into a much younger and far less cranky version of K (Josh Brolin, doing a terrific impression of Jones). From here, Men in Black 3 becomes a full-on mash-up of Austin Powers-style swingin'-60s parody and Back to the Future's space/time continuum mumbo-jumbo--with a dizzying nod to Casino Royale's construction-site set-piece at the climax. For about half the run-time, I dismissed the movie as a breezy, inoffensive retread. It didn't bore me, but it didn't set my mind on fire, either.

Until Bill Hader and Michael Stuhlbarg burst onto the scene, playing Andy Warhol and a hanger-on at The Factory, respectively. J and K visit Warhol's party loft/studio as part of a fact-finding mission. It turns out the famed soup-can artist is a Man in Black as well, sent deep undercover to keep an eye on an exotic species of alien who manifest as supermodels. Hader, a delightful, chameleonic gremlin on Saturday Night Live, brings a much-needed spark of playfulness and originality to the movie's formula. His Warhol is a gruff, pissed-off meat-head who can switch on Warhol's affected, effeminate voice and otherworldly musings at a moment's notice.

Stuhlbarg plays Griffin, a humanoid alien whose gift/curse is the ability to see the world as a series of infinite outcomes. He helps J and K in their fight against Boris, and renews the sense of wonder that this series has been missing since the middle of the first film. Griffin's virtual tour of the yet-to-be-played 1969 World Series is a truly magical couple of minutes that rival anything I've seen in a movie this year. This is due in no small part to Stuhlbarg's delivery, a cross between hopefulness and resignation that recalls his captivating performance in my favorite film of 2009, The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man.

In fact, the tenuous Coen Brothers connection may elevate Men in Black 3 above typical brain-dead summer fare for movie lovers. Jones and Brolin starred in 2007's superb meditation on crime and aging, No Country for Old Men. In that film, they played two men on opposite sides of the law and relatively opposite ends of the age spectrum; one looking to make a brighter future for himself, and the other coming to terms with a difficult past and uncertain present. In a way, they reprise their roles here, with the added complexity of playing the same character before and after a major, life-defining event.

Ah, yes, the event. Cohen's screenplay beats the audience over the head with ominous references to a traumatic moment that turned the serious-but-lovable K into a sad, world-weary investigator of the extraordinary--which is a shame, because the event itself is so quiet, touching, and unexpected* that it flies in the face of its numerous, boisterous setups. More so than the film's overt villain (who, in all honesty is one of the lamest place-holder baddies I've seen in decades), the spectre of K's tragedy looms over the story.

The second half of Men in Black 3 gives a delicious glimpse of the funny, brainy, and moving sci-fi franchise these movies could have been. Some of that credit belongs to Cohen, who worked on Tropic Thunder and Idiocracy. But most of the film's success belongs to the actors; not necessarily the ones on the marquee. Of particular note is Alice Eve, who plays the 60s version of Emma Thompson's Agent O--an icy administrator who may or may not have had a fling with K before his marriage. Though not given a whole lot to do, I was refreshed to see Eve tackle--and transcend--a part that didn't seem tailor-made for her angelic face and impressive rack.

For his part, Smith does a fine job of playing J as a smarter, older agent who still has some sass left in him. He wisely stands aside when it's time to share the screen with truly gifted comedians, and serves up his smart-ass, contorted, scream-face when the audience needs something to help get it through Sonnenfeld's bloated, cynical grab for 3D-glasses money (sorry, I meant to say "action scenes").

Do I need to see Men in Black 4? Absolutely not. Relatively speaking, everyone involved with this picture captured lightning in a bottle. I think it best to store that bottle on a shelf somewhere and study its properties--rather than rush right into mass production. The crap-to-magic ratio here is simply amazing, and I can't believe that a film this tremendously uninspired contains within it so many seeds of greatness. Like the movie that preceded it, I cried at the end of Men in Black 3--but for very different reasons.

*In truth, the film offers a couple of giant, blinking, neon arrows that point directly at the surprise, but there's just as much misdirection afoot. I got swept up and caught off guard. It wasn't until my walk to the parking lot that all the pieces fit together in my head, causing a mild flush of embarrassment.