Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Men in Black III

Alternate Title:  Too Old for this Shit

One sentence synopsis:   Agent J must go back in time to save Agent K from a time-traveling nemesis.

Things Havoc liked:  It has become somewhat typical of these reviews for me to start by praising the previous work of some actor or another. In this case, that actor will be Josh Brolin, a man whose work I've been a consistent fan of in movies from True Grit to W, Milk, and No Country for Old Men. The decision to cast him as the younger version of Tommy Lee Jones' K is probably the best single decision that went into this film, as Brolin doesn't merely do an impression of Jones, but flat out transforms into a younger version of the quintessential Texan. I don't believe I've ever seen two actors whose look, sound, mannerisms, and general demeanor are so identical, and in fact I'd say that Brolin's take as Agent K is, if anything, more interesting that that of Jones (whom we'll get to). Though we've seen Jones' no-nonsense schtick a hundred times, Brolin manages to infuse a bit more energy and humanity into the exact same archetype, despite playing it with identical voice and mannerisms. His presence in the film makes it notably lighter and more interesting, and managed to re-energize my interest in a series that, with its last movie, had begun to seriously wane.

Not that Brolin is the only thing the movie has going for it. The villain of the piece, played by Jermaine Clement (of Flight of the Concords) is well beyond the villains of either of the first two films (particularly the second). Campy as all hell, with an unsettling and yet very clever design, Clement chews scenery like he's trying to derive nourishment from it, but in a movie like Men in Black, that's entirely appropriate. The scene where he confronts himself (don't ask) is a riot, and his growling, refined manner of speech (which sounds like a cross between Hugo Weaving and Tim Curry) livens up the otherwise pedestrian chase or combat sequences that the film puts him through. On a no-less campy but completely different note, Michael Stuhlbarg plays an alien named Griffin whose concept (an alien who can see all possible outcomes of all situations at all times) is actually fairly intriguing, and whose segues into metaphysics are well-thought-out and provoke a sense of the wonder that the first movie had in spades. Finally, a series of cameo roles, from the always fun Emma Thompson as the new boss of MiB to SNL alum Bill Hader's drop-dead hilarious sequence as Andy Warhol, are all wonderfully conceived, written, and put together.

As a time travel flick, the movie makes a great deal of the art design and style of the 60s infused with the Men in Black space-age chic. The results are actually damned impressive. Much hilarity is had from seeing the older, clunkier versions of Men in Black standbys (such as the Neuralizer), or what the Agents of the 60s consider to be reasonable for portable phones or jetpacks. Though more could probably have been done with these sorts of gags, what ones made it into the film are well done, and buttressed by hilarious send-ups to the high-culture world of the late 60s. Even if some of the uglier aspects of American 60s culture are ironed over (I'm not sure how many black US Army Colonels there were in 1969), the nostalgia shines through, and the film is not intended to be a serious study of late-60s society.

Things Havoc disliked:  There are certainly things going for MiB III, but unfortunately, two of the things that don't go for it are the two leads, both of whom, frankly, are too old to play the characters they originally played 14 years ago. Tommy Lee Jones simply looks tired in his (surprisingly limited) scenes, a bitter old man who has passed his sell-by date and is merely going through the motions of his position in a daze. While I get that this is part of the point of the film, the original had Jones looking like an grumpy old man whose dedication and skill were still at their peak, turning his crotchetiness into impatience and his weariness into jaded cynicism, both attributes which play better in a comedy than exhausted indifference. Lest I sound like I'm insulting one of the great icons of American cinema, contrast this performance with Jones' stellar send-up to George Patton in last summer's Captain America, a movie in which he stole every scene he was in, and where his lines seemed sharper and wittier than the rest of the (still quite good) cast. I must therefore conclude that this performance was the result of poor directing, especially since it reminded me of the same soporific turn he gave us in MiB II.

But Jones, honestly isn't the problem. The problem is that at age 43, Will Smith cannot play the fresh-faced young partner anymore. Oh, it's not that he doesn't look the part. Smith can do all the physical stunts required, and doesn't appear over the hill. But his character doesn't seem to have changed a bit in 14 years, still refusing to take any situation seriously, and reacting to every situation with more of the same jokes that he used in the original film. What worked when he was a 29-year old rookie, simply does not fly with a middle-aged veteran agent, and it's perhaps telling that Josh Brolin, who is a year older than Smith, plays his role of a literal 29-year old agent far more effectively than Smith does. Smith's one-liners feel forced and old-fashioned, neither as sharp nor as biting as they were in either of the original movies. I like Will Smith, and I've liked him more as he's gotten older, but this role needs to be updated if he's going to continue to play it, and trying to emulate the Fresh Prince isn't the way to go.

Finally, even ignoring the two leads, the movie just isn't well-crafted. Subplots (like Jones/Brolin's relationship with Emma Thompson/Alice Eve's Agent O) are introduced, developed, and then completely forgotten about. Questions established at the beginning of the film never receive answers or even acknowledgment. The subplots that are fully developed are handled in a leaden, clunky manner, particularly the subplot with the sympathetic colonel, which comes across as a completely misguided attempt to add pathos into a film series that was supposed to be about light-hearted alien comedy. The first movie managed to generate a sense of wonder, despite the comedy, by subtly shifting tone within a given sequence. This movie has all the subtlety of an anvil, bringing string orchestras into the soundtrack from nowhere whenever we are meant to feel "sadness" for a character. Though the writing isn't bad, and some scenes manage to work despite this tendency, the overall result looks rough and amateurish. Barry Sonenfeld has directed his share of disasters (Wild Wild West comes to mind), but even by his standards, this work is very poor.

Final thoughts:   Despite all I just said, there is an earnestness to this film that shines through the boring tropes and tired characters, and when Brolin and Smith get together, it almost becomes fun. Ultimately though, while this movie is better than the one that preceded it, it hardly serves as a shining moment in the franchise. When someone asked about the possibility of an MiB4, Sonenfeld is said to have joked that, for that one, Will Smith would be out, and his son Jaden would take over the series. Frankly, given this movie, I'm not sure that's such a bad idea.

Final Score:  5/10

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