First, the good news. There are a couple of real pleasures in “Men in Black III,” the third installment of the sci-fi adventure-comedy series about cops policing a shadow world of aliens living among us. The most satisfying is the setup itself.
In a time-travel scenario, Agent J (Will Smith) must go back to 1969 to prevent the murder of his partner, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), by another interloper in the space-time continuum, an escaped convict named Boris the Animal who was once locked up by Agent K. Boris is played by an unrecognizable Jemaine Clement (“The Flight of the Conchords”) and a pile of CGI effects. Agent K’s younger self is played by Josh Brolin, who uses some old-fashioned acting to create an uncanny -- and pretty funny -- personification of Jones’ laconic, squinty-eyed K. Brolin’s performance is another of the film’s delights.
But the best thing about the setup -- which conveniently coincides with the Apollo 11 moon launch, a key plot point -- is that it affords the film an opportunity to make fun of the ‘60s, which it does most nimbly in a scene set at Andy Warhol’s Factory. Bill Hader’s Warhol, who hides a secret that I won’t reveal, can be added to the growing list of worthy cinematic impersonations of the iconic, silver-wigged artist.
Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”) also makes a good impression as Griffin the Archanan, a harmless alien with the ability to perceive many different potential futures simultaneously. Half neurotic mess, half blase hippie, he’s like Woody Allen crossed with Pauly Shore. Miraculously, that somehow works.
Not everything in the film does.
Until Agent J “time jumps” into the past -- a trick that entails him literally leaping off the Chrysler Building -- the movie feels flat-footed and lazy, reprising old jokes and sight gags from the two earlier films. It simply takes too long for things to get going.
And Agent J’s plunge (repeated late in the film, from the top of rocket scaffolding at Cape Canaveral) looks way too obviously like a green-screen effect.
All of the special effects budget seems to have gone into Boris, who has some kind of deadly scorpion critter living in a hole in the palm of his hand. It’s actually kind of cool, but enough already. An early Chinese restaurant scene features a fishy little alien that looks like a $10 rubber hand puppet someone picked up from the toy store.
Adding to the list of misfires is Emma Thompson as Agent O, who replaces Rip Torn as the head of the M.I.B. agency. Seemingly intended to add spice as Agent K’s is-she-or-isn’t-she love interest, the actress is hopelessly wasted. One wonders whether the character wasn’t introduced simply to justify a “Men in Black IV.” Agent O goes nowhere.
Finally, there’s the tone. In earlier incarnations, the “Men in Black” franchise struck a happy balance between sly humor and slimy alien action. This third outing climaxes with a dark and melodramatic twist that, while adding a layer of nuance and back story that the previous two films never had, also feels wildly out of sync with its audience’s expectations.
If there ever is a “Men in Black IV” -- and at this point, it’s hard to imagine one -- let’s hope it finds that delicate balance between the yuks and the yucks. © The Washington Post 2012
‘Men in Black III’
Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld
Cast: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jemaine Clement, Alice Eve, Emma Thompson, Nicole Scherzinger