Men in Black 3 Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld

[Sony Pictures; 2012]

Styles: sci-fi comedy
Others: Men in Black, Men in Black 2, Wild Wild West

A decade after its last installment, the Men in Black series continues to display gifts for a small number of memorable aspects that make it stand out from other summer CGI spectacles. One is its creative creature design, to which the series has always paid more attention than Transformers did to robots or Spider Man did to its villains; another, the consistent casting of talented oddballs as the bad guys. In the first movie of the series, Vincent D’Onofrio played Edgar Bug, a humanoid cockroach with an epidermis like a tattered bedsheet; in the second, Lara Flynn Boyle played Serleena, a leafy alien queen; and here, Jemaine Clement (whose star hadn’t yet risen when the last installment was released) plays Boris the Animal, an alien assassin (also known as an “interstellar serial killer”) with skittering insects constantly clambering from pussy orifices located all over his body. Boris is the best, most disgusting Men in Black villain yet, and thus the perfect marriage of the two things the series gets right.

Now, about what Men in Black 3 gets wrong. The plot makes tragically little use of Tommy Lee Jones (who plays Agent K), who was instrumental in the first two films for his natural ability to dilute the uber-ego of Will Smith. His character is ushered out of this story early by way of having his existence erased, making way for Smith’s Agent J to take stages center, left, and right. The film attempts to run off Smith’s star power alone during any period in which it’s not immediately concerned with a CGI action sequence. Smith is smarmy and grating if you focus on him too intently, but he’s also the reason the film gained its green light and huge budget, so what are you doing at Men in Black 3 if you don’t like Will Smith? Oh, right: looking for cleverly designed aliens. Well it’s Boris the Animal, after discovering a gadget that allows him to travel through time, who erases Agent K in the distant past. In order to pencil him back in, Agent J must travel back to 1969 and navigate a series of elaborate set pieces mixed with 60s jokes in order to rewrite history.

This necessitates teaming up with a younger version of K, played as a laconic G-man by Josh Brolin, one of the best actors in American movies today (hopefully taking home a big check from this one so that he can pay his bills for a few years while he does some actual acting). J and young K move through seemingly endless alternative spaces and times — aided by a “5th dimensional being” (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is conveniently able to see all realities at once — stopping long enough for extended jokes on Andy Warhol’s supposed lack of talent, the casual racism of the late 60s, and a Transformers-ish play on the real reason for the moon launch.

The movie makes a near-science out of niftily distracting from logic issues with its reliably bubble-shaped mise-en-scène, moldy cotton candy color scheme, and the fact that it’s all meant to be a big joke anyway. But the lingering question, after the film’s over and you’ve shaken off Will Smith’s unflappable sass, is: a joke about what? The nature of chance? The necessity of believing in predestination? The cultural differences between 1969 and 2012? Between aliens and humans? On the fact that movies now can be more garish than fashion in the 60s?

The joke’s about all of these things, but trying to read anything more into this film will get you stuck in a loop from which the only exit is: $$$. The film cost 375 million goddamn dollars — apparent in its achingly gaudy sets and check-me-out special effects — and it needs to please a hell of a lot of people to make that back. But amazingly, if you leave aside a whole bunch of creative design in the CGI-alien realm, there are few eye-grabbing moments. It’s the most expensive movie ever made that banks on a cache of (admittedly clever) jokes and the personality of Will Smith (who, as the biggest box office draw of all time, goes a long way).

This is a comedy — and not a bad one — dressed up as a mega-blockbuster, and that’s the problem. The jokes are mainly verbal, and they succeed because of inexpensive things: Smith’s swift delivery and impeccably groomed sarcasm; Josh Brolin’s delicately balanced young-Tommy Lee Jones impression as an impenetrable rock of a man who simultaneously can’t hide his real feelings. But the loud sets and the even louder CGI that cost so damn much aren’t trying to support these jokes; it’s the other way around.

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