Third Time's the Smarm

'Men in Black 3'

by Bill Gibron

23 May 2012

This is a heartless, cheerless mess, a meandering 100-minute excuse to enter the already overflowing Summer movie fray. Here, the hipster irony that made the first film fly is all but dead. In its place is a flat feeling of deja vu.
cover art

Men in Black 3

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Cast: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jemaine Clement, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emma Thompson

(Columbia Pictures)
US theatrical: 25 May 2012 (General release)
UK theatrical: 25 May 2012 (General release)

When it was originally announced, Men in Black 3 instantly earned the reputation as the franchise revisit no one really wanted or needed to see. Set up like yet another vanity project for the fading film superstardom of Will Smith, the property appeared poised to be either highly anticipated by those who adore it, or ripe for ridicule for those who thought the previous unnecessary sequel sank the concept forever. Walking the balance beam between kiddie fare and smug sci-fi silliness, it’s been a decade since we last saw Agents K (Tommy Lee Jones) and J (Smith) shuttling around Manhattan, confronting Rick Baker’s tepid takes on ET. This 3D update tries to tie everything up in a brazen ball of sentimental sap. But for all its feigned emotion, it’s the core concept that fails the film this time out.

After 14 years of working together, Agents K and J are facing a bit of a crisis. The latter can’t quite understand why the former is so cold and emotionless and it’s starting to drive a wedge between them. When talking with new supervisor O (Emma Thompson), J learns that K was involved in a mission back in the late ‘60s that changed him forever. Apparently, an evil alien named Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) tried to start an invasion, but our aging hero thwarted his efforts, establishing the MIB manned protective safety net around the Earth in the process. Now, 40 years later, the villain has escaped his lunar jail, traveled back in time, and figured out a way to erase K from history. It is up to J to go back to 1969, find his much younger cohort (Josh Brolin) and defeat Boris one more time.
Until its third act, which lays on the schmaltz with a pallet knife the size of Cincinnati, there’s not much to this tired installment of Men in Black. We get the same set-up (Earth in crisis), the same set-pieces (J and K tackle some interstellar seafood at a Chinese restaurant), and the same sense of pointlessness. Like the first film, which gave away all its gags in the trailer, and the second, which strived to be pop culturally relevant by casting two tired TV types (Johnny Knoxville and Lara Flynn Boyle), there is nothing new or novel here. While some of the absent elements are truly missed - apparently, Tony Shalhoub and that prickly little pug dog didn’t make the final rewrite - we could do without the redundant space shtick and the calculated creature designs.

This is a heartless, cheerless mess, a meandering 100-minute excuse to enter the already overflowing Summer movie fray. There’s no sense of joy, no feeling that everyone here is glad to be back. But the bigger problem lies deep with the premise. Highly trained humans battling beings from outer space has been downgraded and democratized, producing such powerful cinematic statements as District 9 and Attack the Block. Here, the hipster irony that made the first film fly is all but dead. In its place is a flat feeling of deja vu.

Instead of expanding the narrative, making things bigger and (hopefully) better, we are awash in highly paid pawns mindlessly going through the motions for their criminally overlarge paychecks. You can literally see the flop sweat on Smith’s upper lip, his rapid fire dialogue delivery trying to adlib over what the mega-celeb believes are some lame-ass jokes. Too bad he can realize how comically crippled his own approach is. He’ll connect with converts…and that’s about it. As for Jones, he looks positively dyspeptic. Instead of registering any real feeling at all, he comes across as a victim of some bad shawarma.

That just leaves Clement and Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) as two opposing sides of the same space case coin. For our baddie, it’s all monster make-up and hand to mouth menace (if you see the film, you’ll understand). As for our interstellar aide, he’s part plausible being but mostly main plot contrivance. A creature who can see all possible futures is also a keen source of exposition… and Stuhlbarg is a compendium of complicated story beats. In fact, it’s safe to say that without his character’s presence the movie would have nowhere to go. J and the Jones-impersonating Brolin (decent, but given nothing to do) would just sit around the Mad Men inspired ‘60s MIB offices, trading barbs over Martian martinis.

The blame lays squarely at the feet of the two men who desperately wanted to make this movie. For Smith, a few years removed from a true massive mainstream hit, the lure of an easy payday for a recognizable brand was just too tempting to pass up. Apparently, so was slacking off during rehearsal. But for director Barry Sonnenfeld, who left the comfort of the Coen Brothers for his own hit or miss career behind the lens, the truth is painfully clear - the man makes Tim Burton look like the master of storytelling. When he’s not busy bouncing the camera off walls or flying a dolly overhead, he’s pulling in and jump cutting to distraction. After a while, we give up on trying to decipher his style…just like we give up on this nonsensical redux.

For those who grew up with the guys, who fell in love with them as kids in the mid-‘90s and followed them from film to TV to action figures and toys, this latest installment of Men in Black won’t wholly disappoint. It will meter out the merriment in anticipated couplets and then slowly sink away, wondering if it will capture another Oscar for its antiquated F/X work. The last act reveal, which is really nothing more than a massive cheat on the part of everyone involved, doesn’t answer many questions.

In fact, it raises so many new ones that it really should have been rejected for something far more…fun? Indeed, what’s missing from this movie is the sense of whimsy and tongue in cheek charm that infused (at least) the first film with the power to please. Now, everything feels old and dated. Men in Black 3 may have been wholly unwarranted. It didn’t have to come across that way as well. 

Men in Black 3


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