Reflecting on Men in Black 3, my mind, for some reason, keeps jumping to comparisons with The Avengers. Marvel’s blockbuster is still Hulk-smashing every box office record out there, so the film is probably occupying every Variety subscriber’s thoughts for some reason or another. But the two movies share a similar premise — banding together estranged heroes to stop an alien threat — and a love of comic foreplay that faintly nestles them side-by-side. In that case, MiB 3 is without a doubt the superior film. With a $225 million budget, MiB 3 has all the bells and whistles of your typical summer hit yet still possesses a warmth missing in so many others. This film does not succeed by flaunting what it has but by having all it needs and letting it sing.
What MiB 3 has is genuinely great acting, a sharp, economic script and director Barry Sonnenfeld’s clutch balance of such quality. The story is independent of the first two films in the franchise, scrapping Agent Zed, Frank the pug and 90s artifact ‘the worm guys’ except for fleeting cameos. Agent J (Will Smith) assumes the lead, tracking down Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones, with Josh Brolin playing his young self) back in 1969 via time machine after an evil alien Boris the Animal (Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) erases K’s entire existence. There are dozens of plot loopholes and continuity errors but to dwell on such trivia is to ignore the film’s characters, tone and, really, its whole point.
It is reasonable, however, to complain about the outrageous salaries some celebrities receive, especially in these tough times. But, really, the $20-plus million upfront and 20-percent backend thrown at Will Smith is doing some good, because the man earns it. Besides not aging one bit since 1997, Smith still jokes, brawls and charms in league with Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford. There is a moment when Agent J stares at Brolin’s young Agent K when they are driving through 1960s-era New York City after meeting for the first time — the shot is prolonged enough that Smith’s grin is supposed to be construed as awkward. The theater laughs; it’s a joke. But there is a real sweetness to this gesture, of seeing your best friend for the first time, again, before you ever met — Smith is capable of blending a joke with humility and love, in the span of just a few seconds.
Tommy Lee Jones proves again why he is one of his generation’s most gifted and enjoyable actors, with a face as cratered as the moon and a presence equally bright. In the beginning, K infuriates J by withholding secrets that J feels entitled to know. “I promised you the secrets of the universe, nothing more,” K says over the phone, ensconced in his apartment’s leather chair, fireplace smoldering behind him. J and K then share a moment of silence, with a close-up on K’s face. He does not look indifferent but sad that he cannot speak the truth (the reasoning, of course, is revealed later). After they hang up, K nonchalantly presses a button that raises the wall and fireplace behind him to unveil a vast arsenal of ‘space guns.’ He picks one up, snaps it side to side, sits back down and awaits the dangerous Boris the Animal who has a score to settle.
It is not so much a juxtaposition as a natural coexistence of comedy and drama, light and heavy, deft and steady that this film — with much credit to the directing — continuously pulls off. Josh Brolin nails the clip of Jones’ voice, but thanks to a script that actually lets K smile for once, he develops a character richer than the one we started with. The joy K radiates recounting a night spent with Agent O (Alice Eve, dressed like a Mad Men secretary working at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum) brings more humanity to a character in ten seconds than all of MiB II.
Then there is Griffin, a fifth dimensional alien who can read and live in all seemingly infinite alternate realities. Played by A Serious Man’s Michael Stuhlbarg, he probably pillaged a thrift store to hide his unknown alien appearance under layers of secondhand sweaters. His introduction at The Factory — yes, The Factory, Andy Warhol’s (Bill Hader) bastion for counterculture extraterrestrials — lets loose a string of possible immediate futures that all spell doom, only to conveniently end up on the most improbable historical line on which our heroes are still alive. When not tortured by clashing apocalyptic realities, Griffin revels in the remarkable events when everything works out, like the “Miracle Mets” 1969 victory at Shea Stadium. Stuhlbarg, a brilliant actor Scorsese recently tapped for Boardwalk Empire and Hugo, legitimizes a supporting role with all the debilitating neuroses and yearned-for optimism we share.
I have not even mentioned the zany futurist set and costume design, remarkable time travel sequence or nods to modern and 60s pop culture (Lady Gaga now adorns the MiB headquarters’ monitors; “The Viagrans have an amazing new pill…”). Nor have I yet admitted that the 3D in this film actually works; it does not desaturate the overly bright shots but rather exaggerates the rapid digital action scenes, with flying projectiles and long-exposed motion blur. Men in Black thrives on the characters it develops and the connections they make with one another. Studios love to pile different genres onto one film to reach everyone — which is effectively no one. This film proves that at least a few wealthy filmmakers can see past the gloss and craft with their own human hands, as the bittersweet ending bears witness. This is a sci-fi action time travel comedy, yes, but don’t hold that against it.