My partner and I found ourselves on the wrong side of a sold out showing of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on Memorial Day. We were hellbent on seeing a movie, though, so we chose, instead, to go see Men in Black 3 (2012, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld). Personally, I kind of dreaded it. The last couple of Will Smith/Barry Sonnenfeld projects were debacles of the highest order (including the last Men in Black movie), and, truthfully, I would much prefer it if Sonnenfeld would head back into Get Shorty territory rather than make his living as Tim Burton lite. But the MIB movies have made enough money to gold plate Rhode Island, so this movie was inevitable. This film isn't nearly as bad as its predecessor. If I'm completely honest, it's a better film than the first installment, but I'm not much of a fan of that film, either. There's a low cunning in how this film is built that elevates it over its predecessors. Because it's a time travel story, this has to pay closer attention to how the cogs of its plot fit together than it might otherwise, which means that it doesn't rampage off in odd directions for the sake of quirkiness. Not often, anyway.
The story finds alien supercriminal Boris the Animal breaking out of Lunar Max prison. He was captured back in the day by MIB Agent K, who shot off Boris's arm in the course of apprehending him. Boris wants payback. One of his prison acquaintances is Obadiah Price, who has invented a time machine. Boris kills Price during his escape, then heads off to find Price's son, who is custodian of his father's invention. Boris's aim is to head back to 1969 and prevent K from apprehending him (and shooting off his arm). K also deployed a protective technology called the ArcNet in 1969 that prevented the Bogladites (Boris's species) from invading the Earth, an event that led to the Bogladites' extinction. Boris aims to rectify that, too. Meanwhile, MIB has a new chief: Agent O. Agents K and J go about business as usual, and when we meet up with them again, they're investigating the alien owner of a Chinese restaurant who is feeding alien fare to his guests in contravention of treaty. Unfortunately for them, Boris also has business at the restaurant, and a firefight ensues. J and K are bickering, too, over the unbalanced nature of their friendship. Overnight, Boris heads back in time and J wakes up in a world where K has been dead for the past 43 years. He's the only one who knows he's missing. Worse, the Bogladites are invading. K convinces O to send him back in time to rectify things. Unfortunately, this has its perils, not least of which is the lot of a black man in 1969, but also the task of convincing a younger Agent K of his bona fides. When this happens, the trail leads them to Griffin, the last of his kind, who can see all of the threads of time and all of the possibilities of actions. Griffin has the device that will become the ArcNet. They catch up to Griffin at Andy Warhol's Factory, where Warhol turns out to be an undercover MIB agent tasked with keeping tabs on models (who are generally aliens). Boris, for his part, has teamed up with his younger self. It's not exactly a happy partnership. Griffin gives K the ArcNet, but it has to be activated in space. Our heroes then head to Cape Canaveral to send it up with the Apollo 11 moon shot. But Boris is ahead of them, too...
The plot of this movie is not particularly complex. While this makes for a movie that sometimes feels like makework to watch, it also prevents it from tripping itself up on its own stray plot threads. It's a tidy package that gives resolution to every subplot it introduces. Let's face it, though: nobody goes to see these movies for a deep meditation on the human condition and this film doesn't provide that (it gets near it in a subplot concerning J's parentage, but there's no depth to this). What this does provide is a framework for film craft. It's an attractive movie. Sonnenfeld, once an ace cinematographer, knows how to mount his various scenes to drug the eyes. He chooses the right people for this. Production designer Bo Welch is almost an auteur unto himself (let's forget his one foray into directing for all our sakes) and his sets are always fun to look at, whether its his version of the top of the Chrysler building, the Sixties retro-futurism of MIB headquarters, or a Cape Canaveral of dreams. This leaves make-up man Rick Baker to populate the movie with every kind of creature he can imagine. Baker is probably the greatest creature maker still working, so it's a delight to watch him unhitch his imagination within the confines of that same retro-futurist aesthetic. The movie looks great. But then again, so did its predecessor. Looks aren't everything, and while audiences for big dumb commercial movies may be drawn by the big shiny toys, they ultimately want to be told a story. This movie at least understands that even if it doesn't trust the audience with anything more than juvenilia.
This is Will Smith's first film in four years, so this might be seen as a kind of career comeback, though Smith was at the top of his box office allure when he took his time off. Smith is a capable actor, but he doesn't often throw himself into his big blockbusters the way he does his more personal films. He's content to groove on the old Fresh Prince persona. If it still works, don't fix it, his performance seems to be saying. Tommy Lee Jones looks worse for wear. He's an actor more suited to No Country for Old Men these days than he is for a big blockbuster. The filmmakers, for their part, seem to get this and Jones is only on screen for a limited time. His part is an extended cameo, mostly. In his stead, the filmmakers have substituted Jones's No Country co-star, Josh Brolin as the younger K. Brolin does an uncanny impersonation of the younger Jones. If the movie has an attraction among its performances, it's Brolin. It's a nice piece of mimicry. The other actors are largely wasted, but this is particularly true of Emma Thompson's Agent O and Alice Eve playing the younger version of the same character. This movie touches on romance, though not enough to be thought of as a romantic picture and it drops it like a hot potato once it raises the possibility, perhaps because an audience of teen boys won't stand for it. As an aside, I'm amused at the fact that this movie includes a character named "O," without understanding the literary and cinematic history of women characters who are named "O." Maybe they should have picked a different letter.
To paraphrase Douglas Adams, this is mostly harmless. But only mostly. In spite of the fact that it is surely the best of the Men in Black movies and in spite of the fact that it's as shallow as rain on a concrete drive, I walked out of the theater in a seething rage. I mentioned the scene at The Factory. Nested inside this sequence is a joke about Warhol's well-known associations with transsexuals and drag queens (most famously Candy Darling). This is a variant of the old cute girl catching the eye until she opens her mouth and booms a masculine voice. The slang term for this trope is "the trap." This is not a benign trope. I won't get into the real-world harm this trope does. I will get into the fact that, like most ethnic jokes and jokes about minorities and women as a category, this joke isn't particularly funny, but it DOES coach the audience to view the butt of the joke as somehow funny just because. You know, it's a man in a dress! Seriously, right? As an openly trans member of the audience, I was not amused. Here's the thing: I know that I'm part of an infinitesimally small demographic, but I pay my money and I don't like being mocked for the privilege. I'm giving this the side-eye, and I'll think twice about paying my money to see Smith or Sonnenfeld's next movie. If they don't like it, if, hey, it's all in fun, then they can go fuck themselves.