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‘Men in Black 3’ inessential, but moderately entertaining

Men in Black 3

Written by Etan Cohen
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
USA, 2012

Though it’s merely a somewhat unnecessary echo of the 1997 original, Men in Black 3 manages to be moderately entertaining. After a four-year hiatus from the big screen, Will Smith returns as Agent J of the MIB extraterrestrial task force, trying to save the world and his partner by time-traveling to 1969. The plot is far too complicated and is mostly an afterthought, but what the film lacks in story, it makes up for in an extremely committed cast.

Things kick off when a particularly nasty alien prisoner, Boris the Animal, breaks out of his high-security cell, intent on exacting revenge on the man who put him there, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones, looking very bored). The only way Boris can (or will) vanquish K is by erasing him from existence. Somehow, only J remembers his grumpy old partner and aims to make sure the inciting incident between a young K and Boris ends with the alien’s death, not K’s. Like many plots of intentionally mindless action movies, Men in Black 3 has a story that sounds uniquely ridiculous once you spell it out. For writer Etan Cohen and director Barry Sonnenfeld, what matters aren’t the nitty-gritty details, but the basic, fish-out-of-water concept of throwing Will Smith into the 1960s and seeing what happens.

Though Smith is a comfortable presence, doing another variation on the Fresh Prince, it’s Josh Brolin as the younger version of Agent K who’s one of a few notable standouts. Brolin’s impression of Jones is nearly frightening in its accuracy. Some of the humor surrounding Agent K is Cohen and Sonnenfeld nudging us in the ribs, saying, “Can you believe how much he sounds like Tommy Lee Jones?” But Brolin wrings genuine emotion from the material he’s given, doing a fine job with the character’s arc. Much of the first act involves J being warned that delving into K’s sordid past would be a bad idea; because of Brolin’s performance, the payoff about K’s history actually does feel a little dark.

The true scene-stealer, though, is Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Griffin, a goodhearted extraterrestrial who holds the key to the Earth’s (and K’s) survival. Stuhlbarg, best known for his more dramatic and sometimes menacing work in A Serious Man and on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, is a surprising breath of fresh air as the (kind of) psychic alien. He’s spacey, he’s goofy, and though the script sometimes tries to shove the character’s lovability on us, he never forces it. What’s more, he stands apart from the rest of the cast, a giddy outsider who’s thrilled at the idea of playing in this artificial world. It’s rare for an actor to make such a firm impression on the audience in one scene, but when his first scene is over, you want Stuhlbarg back onscreen immediately, and to hell with the plot or other characters.

There are some missteps in Men in Black 3, specifically some of the gags and special effects. The movie is moderately enjoyable, but it never once reaches the same laugh-out-loud heights the original did. You’ll find yourself perhaps chuckling at the “Weren’t the 1960s a hoot?” gags, but nothing’s that memorable. And though Sonnenfeld has a history with comedy, his pacing almost always gets the better of him, especially in the present-day scene where J realizes something fishy is going on as not even his MIB superior (a game but unremarkable Emma Thompson) doesn’t think K lived past age 30. There are easy gags here—helped by an odd cameo I won’t reveal—but Sonnenfeld rushes through the scene so quickly, it becomes a blip, not something outstanding.

And when a movie costs a reported quarter of a billion dollars (not including an apparently massive marketing budget), it’s all the more disappointing when you can’t see the money on the screen. Some of the effects in the film, especially Rick Baker’s design of the film’s villain, played by Jemaine Clement, are quite good. But others are clearly greenscreen effects, as when Clement and Jones converse on a rooftop in the first act. In 2012, with over $200 million at his disposal, it’s strange that Sonnenfeld wasn’t able to lick the problem of creating believable backdrops.

Make no mistake, Men in Black 3 is not, unlike its 2002 predecessor, a movie you’ll regret seeing. It’s close enough to the original but new enough to stand on its own two feet. But after so many years of directing glib, fast-paced, deadpan comedies, Barry Sonnenfeld may need to try something new. The best parts of this film are Brolin and Stuhlbarg, who play varying notes on hopeful optimism. These actors have enough time to create interesting characters, despite Sonnenfeld’s desire to speed through each scene. They hint at depth below the surface world Sonnenfeld depicts, but his track record shows he may be more interested in the artifice of filmmaking, not the expanse of three-dimensional storytelling. Movies like Men in Black 3 are kind of fun; they’re just not special.

– Josh Spiegel