Saturday, May 26, 2012

Movie Review: Men in Black III

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. 2012.

spoilers throughout

The first twenty or so minutes of Men in Black III grind along with such a screech that any sane person starts to eye the exit. It is not so much a problem that the opening scene is a cliche, really. The escape of a criminal has been a stock element of films for decades and it is no crime to start your picture with a breakout, a heist, a murder, or so forth.

Don't you know, though, that you need a sexy woman walking down the hall and two dopey guards smitten with her. Of course she needs a cake in which something is kept to help the villain, who of course is kept behind a big round bank-vault door, escape. Of course you would allow a guest into the cell of a prisoner for whom an entire prison was created. . . on the moon.

Sadly this sorry scene is the highlight of the first twenty minutes of MiB III. The subsequent scenes with J and K are simply painful to watch and unfortunately these scenes need to work because, unlike MiB I and II, the highlight of III is not aliens or revealed secrets or technology but rather and only the relationship between J and K.
The tone of their opening scenes is so off and the humor so cringe-inducing that I cannot begin to explain their existence. They reminded me of the similarly unsuccessful scenes of Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode  III. There George Lucas realized he had to acknowledge the partners' recent years of shared escapades but his solution consisted of simply mentioning them. MiB III essentially ignores the passage of time and sharpens the insults.

These scenes needed to establish the tone of the movie by demonstrating the nature of their relationship and they needed to do this by means of scenes that allowed how they reacted to the situation and each other to demonstrate how they got along. The scenes needed to be plausible as normal days in the lives of J and K who over fourteen years learned to make their partnership work despite their different personalities. Instead we get pale, crude imitations of the dialogue from when they were getting to know one another. Instead K is uncomfortably rude and angry and J's jibes cut a little to close to pass as playful banter. This is how they get along every day? If their relationship was supposed to seem this adversarial then they should just have made it seem as if they were about to split up. I guess the director was trying to suggest that J still hadn't cracked K's shell and he's still a mystery but still is the operative word. They needed to suggest that time had passed and events had occurred but K was still K. All they did was show two rude people and between that fact and the wildly varying tone these scenes were downright unpleasant.

The remainder of the opening consists of attempts to cash in on the aspects of the film not central to the plot but expected because they were in previous movies. So we get Emma Thompson squawking in an alien language. Yikes.

The film picks up quite a bit when J jumps back in time. Right before he goes back, though, a character tells J that he should really make sure he gets back because that time wasn't so great "for your people," referring to the status of African Americans in the 1960s. Then we get that awkward feeling where we wonder how the movie's going to handle this serious issue. You can't ignore it, you can't make everyone racist, and you can't have it come up over and over again. Frankly, there's no way to do the matter justice in this movie.  So we get two scenes which acknowledge the issue and thankfully it is handled well in both. In one the humor comes from the fact that J hasn't realized why the white man is acting so uncomfortable and in the other the humor revolves around the fact that J, harassed by police, has indeed stolen a car. These scenes were obviously handled with greater care than the rest of the movie, which is a credit in the sense that the writers gave attention to the importance of the issue but a shame insofar as they didn't see the rest of their movie as worth thinking about.

Josh Brolin's appearance as the Agent K of 1969 is the saving grace of MiB III. Aside from the superficial resemblance Brolin nails Jones' deadpan and you can see him thinking behind his stone exterior. The fact that the K of '69 looks the same but sometimes listens to J gives us the best of both worlds. Unfortunately we don't really know why K listens to J. Is it because he is less surly or because he's hedging bets about how he deals with this guy who claims to be from the future? That we can't say thins his character.

The rest of the movie proceeds along competent but regular lines. The script handles the scenes in 1969 efficiently, neither lingering in any one place with unnecessary delays nor rushing headlong in an attempt to spice up the visuals.  The action is refreshingly moderate, a commendation which ought not be understated.

What remains? The scene with Andy Warhol is a hoot. Michael Stuhlbarg brings a sweetness to the character of Griffin, whose name is Greek for convenient plot device. Despite the problems Griffin creates and solves for the plot, Stuhlbarg does such a good job at the impossible task of making plausible a character who sees every possibility simultaneously happen that I can't complain. At first look Griffin's childlike demeanor might seem like a gimmick but if you stop and think his lack of focus makes sense. Moment-to-moment in Griffin we see overwhelming wonder at the myriad possibilities, curiosity about which one he is in, and the joy of being in a special one. Stuhlbarg's Griffin is an unexpected pleasure.

Finally, the 1969 scenes between J and K work because while they remain essentially derivative of the first movie and are just as redundant as the opening scene they make more sense for two reasons. First, it is reasonable hat J is confused trying to figure out why old K is slightly less cranky. Second, K is trying to figure out what is going on even more than J. In the opening scene K has no reason to say anything so he doesn't and it's boring.  Clearly the MiB III writers saw the pitfalls of making a new MiB movie. That they realized they couldn't make a whole movie like the opening act is commendable but that they simply avoided the problem instead of thinking of something new is not quite so worthy of praise. The result is rather middling fare.


  1. Nobody was really ever praying and wishing for the third film in this series, but it wasn't all that bad. I still had plenty of fun with Will Smith and I thought James Brolin's whole impersonation/performance of Tommy Lee Jones, was spot-on and added a whole lot more comedy to the final product. Good review N.

  2. I agree that Brolin was spot on and because of that they really did rekindle the odd-couple comedy and charm from the original. It was surprisingly amusing just watching him stare and think before giving his terse and unexpected consent.

    Thanks for reading and your kind comment of course. Nice site of yours also; surely will take a look. So many reviews!

  3. I'm loving your movie reviews. But I'm a little surprised at how kind you are!

  4. Thanks so much Tom! Indeed I have rather looked the other way when it has come to the, well, plots (or lack thereof) of these recent movies. I figured I would focus in on what they were trying to do rather than judge them as (and now this is starting to sound harsh) if they had tried to be "full" movies, i.e. to handle all the different elements of a movie. I might still be writing some of these if I had done that but they did have their moments.

    Also, I forgot to mention that I'm fairly sure the villain in MiB III was doing an impersonation of Tim Curry.

    Thanks again Tom!