Men in Black 3 should be eternally grateful to Men in Black 2 for lowering the bar so much. We thus enter the new film braced for the worst, and the not-at-all-bad product we get back feels like a palpable triumph. It lacks the freshness of the first film – and really, how could it be expected to surprise us the way that earlier effort did? – but finds a great deal of the charm and enthusiasm that Part 2 completely crushed. Despite a troubled production process and several notable lags, MIB3 holds more than enough charm to keep us entertained.
Personality goes a long way, especially in such a spectacle-laden movie. Director Barry Sonnenfeld unveils the expected number of money shots, high-tech gadgets and alien faces (courtesy of make-up legend Rick Baker). As prominent as they all seem, however, none of them are strictly necessary. You could tell this story with the same actors and no effects whatsoever, and it would still work. The characters maintain our focus, not the blockbuster-y bells and whistles surrounding them. The more time we spend with them – laughing at their quips, appreciating their quirks and even caring about them more than we expected – the better the movie becomes.
That starts with the ultra-hip J (Will Smith) and his cranky partner K (Tommy Lee Jones) who slip into their old-married-couple bickering as if no time at all had passed. As anyone who’s seen the previews can tell you, J needs to travel back to the 1960s to stop a time-travelling villain from basically ruining everything for everyone. He gets a hand from K’s younger self (Josh Brolin) and the dynamic between the two characters alters not one iota with the new actor. Brolin becomes an is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex duplicate of Jones, so perfect that you hardly register the difference in actors at all. Smith happily plays straight man where necessary and his chemistry with both of his co-stars keeps the movie snappy when the plot starts to drag.
That sharpness extends to the supporting plays as well. Though Emma Thompson’s MIB head O mostly marks time, she still scores one priceless moment that fully justifies her presence. Bill Hader scores another brilliant cameo – playing Andy Warhol this time – and while the villain (Jemaine Clement) can’t quite scale the heights Vincent D’Onofrio reached in the first film, he combines humor and menace into a thoroughly winning package. A good bad guy goes a long way in a movie like this, and Clement’s Boris the Animal provides an ample challenge for our heroes to overcome.
The real revelation in the cast, however, is Michael Stuhlbarg, playing a uniquely perceptive alien who may hold the key to J’s success. He sees every possibility of every future event that may or may not happen, and MIB3 mines comedic gold from his confusion between potential realities. More importantly, however, his undeniable sweetness shines through in every moment, wrapped around the expediencies of the plot, but elevating the character to more than just an exposition machine.
To the cast, Sonnenfeld add countless little nifty details counteracting the fact that we’ve seen most of this world before. The best bit involves the way aliens look in 1969, with giant bubble helmets and Barbarella-style costumes reminiscent of pop culture at the time. But the director also puts thought into explanations of quantum physics, the way the film’s funky time-travel technology works, and the increasingly funny explanations J unveils after using his brain-wiping neuralizer. The film skids badly when going over old ground (those chain-smoking aliens from the first film have pretty much used up their good will), but thankfully, such incidents are rare.
That’s important, because a lot of MIB3 betrays its status as pure Hollywood product. It never justifies its existence as anything but yet another easily recognized cash generator, and it cleaves to the established formula without venturing so much as a toe outside its comfort zone. It slows down at key points as well, particularly in the middle when the screenplay doesn’t quite know how to proceed.
In each case, however, the cast steps up to hold our attention until the storyline can kick into gear again. You may not remember MIB3 by the time you get home from the theater, but it doesn’t ask you to. It wants only a little of your time to make you smile and remind you that giant corporate behemoths can still have a heart sometimes. Indeed, “heart” remains MIB3’s secret weapon: creeping up on us slowly until a surprising finale that may actually leave you a little misty eyed. There aren’t many part 3s out there that can do that, and none where the soul and humanity arrive so unexpectedly. I wouldn’t recommend taking MIB3’s tortured path to success; I’m just really glad it got there.