Men in Black III

In theaters.

Expecting a time travel story to make sense is asking to be disappointed. The paradoxes are virtually impossible to resolve, so if you think too hard about the plot, you’re almost certain to run up against nonsense. Better to just go with it, let the story take you where (and when) it will, and enjoy the ride.

That’s my philosophy, anyway, so believe me when I say that my nagging dissatisfaction with the time travel in Men in Black III has nothing to do with anything so banal as logic. I don’t expect the time travel to make much narrative sense; I do, however, expect emotional sense, some insight into how people think about the arcs of their lives, their regrets, their hopes, the paths taken or not. That’s the underlying point of time travel storytelling. If you can’t get that right, you just have a lot of cutesy riffs on history, real and alternate.

Men in Black III just has riffs, and those riffs aren’t all that cute, at least not consistently so. Worse, the feints at an emotional payoff to the time travel go nowhere, deflating the whole enterprise. I wasn’t expecting profundity, but a few solid emotional beats aren’t too much to ask. Yet aside from the brilliant decision to cast Josh Brolin as a young Tommy Lee Jones, nothing about Men in Black III feels particularly inspired or sharp.

That’s a shame because the first Men in Black is charmingly witty, and the second, while a big step down, features a lovely emotional climax that I can’t help responding to, despite the fatuousness around it.* III, however, is disappointingly muted in both wit and heart. Part of the problem is that I’ve grown bored with Will Smith’s self-absorbed Agent J. As the movie opens, J is still moping that his partner, Agent K (Jones), doesn’t confide in him or laugh at his jokes or otherwise reassure him that he’s a special snowflake as they police the extraterrestrials of Manhattan. While J is holding his endless pity party, the voraciously aggressive, destructive alien Boris (Jemaine Clement) escapes from lunar jail and manages to go back in time to stop K from arresting him in the late 1960s. He apparently succeeds, and K is bleeped out of existence, but J (and only J) remembers the old timeline, so J goes back in time to try to save K.

The filmmakers could have gotten a lot out of mileage out of the 1960s setting, but aside from an awkward racial profiling gag and a series of cheap jokes about Andy Warhol, III doesn’t bother with much more than mod attire and a trip to Cape Canaveral to name-check Apollo 11. More entertaining is Brolin’s performance as a 1960s-era Agent K. Brolin adopts Jones’s distinctive mannerisms and speech patterns with pitch-perfect accuracy. The mimicry is hilariously eerie, but beyond that, Brolin cannily re-creates Jones’s prickly rapport with Smith. True, thanks to Smith’s unabashedly petulant performance, I’ve rather tired of that rapport, but seeing Brolin pick up the counterpoint without missing a beat is amusing nonetheless.

On average, III is a stronger movie than the little-loved II. Clement makes a compellingly creepy villain, a big improvement over Lara Flynn Boyle’s flat vamp of an antagonist in II. Moreover, III features Emma Thompson in a supporting role back at modern-day MiB headquarters. She’s criminally underused but beautifully deadpan in her few scenes, and I adore her comic turns so much that I’ll take what I can get.

Yet even though the average II scene is worse than the average III scene, the high points in II are higher than those in III. I love the reveal in II of how, even with his memory wiped, K still gravitates toward those who fundamentally don’t fit in. The campily bizarre flashbacks are delightful, especially with David Cross setting them up, and then, of course, there’s that gorgeous, rainy good-bye at the end that even Smith, doing his damnedest to make it all about him, can’t quite spoil. III doesn’t have anything like that. It’s agreeable enough. It made me a laugh a little. But the thing I love about the previous Men in Black movies is the underlying sadness, the feeling of being lost—but perhaps not quite alone. I think the III filmmakers know that’s what they should be doing because they grasp for that occasionally, but the pieces never quite fit together into a coherent arc. III doesn’t crash, but neither does it soar. It’s pleasantly mediocre through and through.

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*The set-up is ridiculous, but basically, the movie ends (SPOILER, obviously) with Rosario Dawson learning that Tommy Lee Jones is her father, and she is a half-alien princess, and she has to leave Earth to go lead her people, or whatever. Anyway, Rosario can’t quite believe this, and Jones tries to convince her by pointing out one of her unearthly alien traits: it always rains when she’s sad. Rosario protests that “lots of people get sad when it rains,” and Jones softly answers, “It rains because you’re sad, baby.” And the way he says it—so gentle and tender and paternal, a lifetime of unspoken love and regret and pride in six simple words—chokes me up every time. I’m not usually a particularly sentimental person, but my soft spots are very soft, and that short exchange nails it.

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