Men in Black 3: Slathered in Butter-Flavored Syrup and Green Alien Goop

I always say I’m never going to get my name in movie-marketing blurbs by writing lines to publicists like “With apathetic lowered expectations, you won’t mind this movie as much as you may have feared.”

That bit of self-deprecation is doubly apt for Men in Black 3 because not only does it describe my honest reaction to the film, but it gets at the raison d’etre for a threequel no one (including, it feels, the stars and film makers) really cared to see. In this age of instant nostalgia, let’s call it the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides of 2012: skating by on general watch-ability and the well-practiced charm of its stars, but only existing because a studio ledger somewhere demanded it.

Men in Black 3 is pure media-conglomerate product—the notion that it exists only as a marketing exercise is supported by the fact that it took 13 years to get dragged back into the Cineplexes, and that the film was infamously delayed for six weeks while writer Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder) struggled to sort out the movie’s “we’ve run out of aliens for Agents J and K to beat up in the present day” time-travel plot. Narrative-wise, Will Smith’s J has to go back to Don Draper’s (not Austin Powers’) 1969 to stop younger K from dying at the hands of a time-tripping alien, but on a creative level, the temporal jump was necessary to aerate the franchise’s stale fish-out-of-water theme.

That’s not the only thing needing some new life. You kids under 25 may not believe it, but Will Smith was once considered a Big Box-Office Draw. “Mr. Fourth of July” they called him based on the summer holiday performance of Independence Day, the original Men in Black, and its first sequel. Of course that was eons ago in pop-culture years, and these days Will Smith is best known as, well, “Will Smith.” His filmography of the past decade reads like a laundry list of good-intentioned, but misguided Oscar bait; ill-conceived genre crossing; and blockbuster thuds.

In fact, the actor’s been away from the marquee for four years, but his return in MiB 3 feels less like a triumph (on screen, Smith seems wearier than his co-star Tommy Lee Jones, a feat no right thinking person would have thought possible) and more like a last-ditch effort to Preserve the Will Smith Brand.

So we’ve got Will Smith; we’ve got the shiny chrome weapons and the requisite cop shakedown of rubbery, goop-filled, CGI aliens; we’ve got the tired suits and shades; we’ve got whiz-bang, gimcrack car chases (sigh); and we’ve got Tommy Lee Jones back as Elder K for what really amounts to an extended cameo.

As usual, Jones’ clayfaced bored annoyance at what he Must Do for a Paycheck easily works for Agent K, but no one can blame him for wanting to sit most of this one out and turn his role over to his uncannily capable No Country for Old Men co-star Josh Brolin as the Younger K.

Behind the camera once again is Barry Sonnefield, a Big Movie Guy who despite the inventive, gymnastic flair he pioneered as the Coen Brothers’ cinematographer on Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing, as a director has never had a thing to say other than “here’s this thing.” Sonnefield is the height of shiny competence: He makes big, loud, fast and flashy movies that are all surface notions, and are as much endured as enjoyed. The surfaces of MiB 3 have a pre-approved familiarity, but sprayed over with just enough calculated “newness” (Ooh, 3D aliens!) to give the movie a barely deceptive “fresh” scent.

But wait, did I say I didn’t “mind” MiB 3 as much as I’d feared? Surely that implies there’s something mildly entertaining here? There is. Most of that fresh scent comes from the supporting cast, including Emma Thompson as the new head of MiB. And yes, Brolin’s Tommy Lee Jones impersonation is a tremendous parlor trick, though it might be a little more fun if it too didn’t have that marketing whiff of “look at how clever we’re being with this.”

The standouts, however, are Flight of the Conchords’ Jermaine Clement as Boris the requisite alien baddie—a comic-book role he stomps and chomps his way through with growling heavy biker relish—and yet another Coen alum, A Serious Man’s outstanding Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin, a meekly visionary alien whose wide-eyed innocence and worried smile conjures a less manic Mork from Ork. (I thought I was being clever with that observation a week ago, but of course everyone cottoned to the comparison.) Men in Black 3 tacks on a jury rigged “heart” at its very end, but its Stuhlbarg’s Griffin (with some help from the ’69 Mets) who gives the movie some fleeting cosmic soul.

Those bits and pieces and the film’s relatively snappy pace—plus a CGI glimpse of a lovely full-scale alien invasion and some undeniably stunning close-ups of the 1969 Apollo Saturn V rocket lifting off (pure geek bait to a kid who grew up on the Space Program*)—don’t make Men in Black 3 feel any less like pointless, needless product, but they’re the “butter-flavored syrup” that make the stale popcorn go down a little easier. However, like all fast food you’re told you must like, it won’t stay with you very long.

What? “Butter-flavored syrup over stale popcorn” won’t make the ad blurb, either? Dammit.

2 Comments to Men in Black 3: Slathered in Butter-Flavored Syrup and Green Alien Goop

  1. JenSciFiFriend's Gravatar JenSciFiFriend
    June 7, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I think in general for movies these days I have completely lowered my standards, so now I am pleasantly surprised even with a constant level of disappointment present.

    I enjoyed seeing Tommy Lee and Will Smith reunite and the focus of the movie being more about their relationship than how many cool aliens and car chase scenes can we do. And I don’t really agree it was totally stale popcorn well depending on the age you gave the popcorn.

    And I disagree with you thinking the actor playing Boris was a standout. He was my least favorite bad guy almost ever. He seemed to be forcing to hard to talk over those teeth and I liked him best when he didn’t talk. Now Griffin was totally fresh air and fun.

    But here is my sic fi geek problem. In time travel are you not supposed to see yourself? Boris did? I thought that was a total time travel no no. And then, Will’s character was told NOT to see Agent K and he did. So what did that do to the timeline? Wouldn’t that have altered Will’s character in that moment that he saw them???

    And the thing that made me laugh the loudest was Emma Thompson alien speech. She is such a trooper.

    On the whole, I am glad I saw the movie in the theater with a bag of fresh popcorn :)

    Oh and p.s. – I felt so “smart” telling my friend while we were in the movie, actually the correct name is Cape Kennedy! Thanks for being a NASA nerd :)

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