28 May 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: Men in Black 3

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Before getting into Men in Black Part the Third, I must retract a promise made in an earlier post, where I vowed to review eighteen of this summer’s genre movie releases. But the blame rests with Paramount, not with me. In a move that can best be described as a vote of “less-than-zero confidence” in their own product, Paramount has delayed the release of G.I. Joe: Retaliation from next month to March 2013. With only a month to go before its originally slated release, and with a promotional campaign already going full throttle, G.I. Joe just got banned from the summer leagues. The excuse: “3D conversion.” Uh huh. I can’t imagine how terrible the film must actually be if Paramount chose to ditch it this late and swallow a few million bucks of promotion. I estimated that The Amazing Spider-Man would viciously pound G.I. Joe in its second frame, and Paramount apparently decided that G.I. Joe’s first frame would be so poor that they didn’t want to go through the embarrassment. I wonder how much Hasbro’s Battleship flop affected Paramount’s decision to drop the toy company’s other movie of the summer?

Anyway, Men in Black 3, a.k.a. MIIIB, pronounced “Mieb” and known on Arrakis as “Mi’i’d.” The film that, whatever it else it may achieve, has the distinction of taking down The Avengers from the #1 box-office slot after reigning for three weeks.

The original Men in Black was a minor miracle in the summer of 1997. (Keep in mind, this was the same summer as Batman and Robin; we were desperate.) It was compact, clever, breezy, and crackled with the chemistry between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith at the height of his comic powers. It also looked like ideal sequel material, but when Men in Black II arrived and stunk in 2002, the first film began to look like a perfect one-off: nothing more was needed.

Men in Black 3 is a large improvement over Men in Black II, and even though it runs more than fifteen minutes longer—the longest of the three films—the second sequel moves faster and gets back some of the click of the ’97 movie. However, the first Men in Black still seems like a one-off. Men in Black 3 is a bland film at worst, and somewhat enjoyable at its select best.

A core issue with Men in Black 3 is the chemistry between Agents K and J no longer pops. It didn’t pop in Men in Black II, but it fails to pop here in an entirely different way, and on two different levels. Will Smith’s Agent J has two different Agents Ks to work from: Tommy Lee Jones as a bookend, and Josh Brolin playing a younger K for the central time-travel segment in 1969. The problem here, unfortunately, appears to be Will Smith. In the late 1990s, Smith was blazing along as a comedic force, and his on-screen charisma and comedy were natural to the point of almost being supernatural. But then Smith turned toward dramatic roles, and although he’s delivered some good work (I Am Legend, if not for its awful ending, would have cemented Smith as a heavy-hitter), his humorous touch has never come back to the level it was in Men in Black.

Smith is simply not very “on” during Men in Black 3. Tommy Lee Jones has turned his Agent K into a stolid grouch—very little remains of that snappy “Elvis isn’t dead, he’s just gone home” fellow who constantly surprised both the audience and his more savvy partner—but it’s part of his character arc to bring J back to meet the looser K of 1969. But Smith seems unaware of how to play off Jones when he’s in this zone, and the result is that neither man ends up funny or interesting. Jones’s highlight is delivering a funeral eulogy for Director Zed (Rip Torn has been replaced by Emma Thompson, and that’s not an improvement) that gets to the heart of Agent K as well as the MiB in general. Jones otherwise seems as if he doesn’t care to be on set and knows his substitute will get the best chunk of the movie.

And that leads to the frustration with Josh Brolin as K-69. Brolin nails it. I almost couldn’t detect him beneath his gesture/mannerism/voice-perfect imitation of Tommy Lee Jones. It feels more like a CGI youthening of the original actor than a recasting, except without the waxy look of Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy. But Smith doesn’t know how to react to this version of K either. He maintains the same attitude he had with the older K, which is out of step with this more irreverent one. If Smith pulled off what he did in ’97, he and Brolin would’ve blown up the screen the same way that Smith and Jones did. (Yes, the famous actors headlining a movie are “Smith” and “Jones.” Samuel Goldwyn would not be pleased.) It leaves Brolin’s considerable mimicry achievement wasted and his character cut adrift.

Will Smith works best in Men in Black 3 when he’s flying solo. Perhaps the lessons of acting with nobody for the majority of I Am Legend worked for him here. His best moment, the funniest in the film, has Agent K trying to fast-talk two racist policeman from 1969 when they pull him over simply because he’s driving a nice car. Smith’s got his old touch back in this scene, and I think I’m going to be quoting his “memory replacement speech” that wraps it up for years to come—regardless of whether anyone knows what I’m quoting.

Even if the chemistry of the movie no longer sparks the laughs it once did, Men in Black 3 has a store of surprises, strange characters, and intriguing ideas to keep from a full flounder. After a boring opening in the present where K mopes and J worries about him, the storyline leaps into 1969 and gets to have some fun. Director Barry Sonnenfeld and credited writer Etan Cohen seem aware of the cliché of time-travel movies and the thorny paradoxes they create, and they ride them shamelessly. Men in Black veteran production designer Bo Welch built a 1969 that looks plastic and fake, more like a decorator’s showroom than the real thing … and I believe this was a conscious choice, because it makes the alien activity feel more at home while making Will Smith appear more out of place. The entire appearance of film makes it seems like the “Gary Seven” episode of Star Trek. I kept expecting Terri Garr to pop up. This is a good thing.

Except for the scene with the policemen pulling J over and a skin-crawling but effective encounter in an elevator, the movie ignores the racial aspects of the decade and how the freedom Agent J enjoys in 2012 has vanished. The filmmakers probably didn’t want to hammer too much on this topic out of fear of swerving in dark a direction, but they should’ve leaped in; not only does the racial tension humor give a sharper satirical bite to the comedy, but it puts an interesting slant on the “strangers hidden in plain sight” theme of the “Men in Black” premise: nobody wonders about the disguised extraterrestrials among them, but a black man driving a nice car? Hands on the hood, now!

The storyline is a tangle that the movie doesn’t expect you to care much about. The original Men in Black didn’t have a strong throughline either, but it didn’t need one because of its great premise, the Jones-Smith sparkle, and Vincent D’Onfrio’s hilarious physical turn as “Edgar” the Bug. Men in Black 3 has an effective bad guy in Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), another highly physical villain performance. Boris holds a grudge against K for shooting off his arm, so he travels back in time to when it happened to join his younger self and kill K. Boris succeeds, and K vanishes from the timeline. For reasons unclear, Agent J still remembers K in 2012 and figures out what Boris did. I don’t know why J didn’t also blink out of existence, since K recruited him in 1997, quite a few years after 1969, but … time travel, I throw my hands up. There are worse consequences to Boris’s time-screw than K’s disappearance, however: Boris’s extinct race of Boglitdites become extant and ticked off. A fleet of their ships surrounds Earth, threatening annihilation. Agent J duplicates the time travel trick—another funny scene that makes use of my favorite skyscraper, the Chrysler Building—and lands in 1969 to try to fix the situation while the clock ticks down toward a key moment in world history.

The movie eventually drawls to a poor conclusion with a slapped on twist for sentimentality, but the late ‘60s still has some fun stuff to throw at the camera: a visit to Andy Warhol’s factory (Bill Hader’s Warhol is not what you think), an emotional moment about the Miracle Mets with an alien named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) who can see all possible alternate futures, the appearance of David “Sledge Hammer!” Rasche as the MiB director in 1969, and plenty of wonderful Rick Baker-designed alien creatures. Yes, go back and read over that: the emotional highlight of the film is about the Mets. Not a criticism, simply an intriguing observation.

But when the scales are balanced, Men in Black 3 isn’t anything more than a better-than-expected installment in a trilogy that should’ve remained a single film. Chemistry made the original, and lack of chemistry banishes Men in Black 3 to the shadowy limbo of average summer movies.

Final thought: What is up with inconsistency in numbering sequels? Men in Black II and now Men in Black 3. Come on, this isn’t Friday the Thirteenth: pick Arabic or Roman numerals and stick to them!

My Summer Movie Scorecard
Men in Black 3 . . . . . . . . . . C+
Battleship . . . . . . . . . . D
Dark Shadows . . . . . . . . . . C-
The Avengers . . . . . . . . . A

Next week: Snow White & Thor the Huntsman.