“Men in Black 3” as obligatory a sequel as they come

The biggest movie star in the world seems to have a hard time picking his roles these days.

Will Smith is a fixture in our culture, one about as concrete and as wholesome as American pie. The delicacy, for the record, not the franchise. From a financial perspective he’s as untouchable as they come, and for damn good reason: he has a particular persona and skill-set, and caters his films around them. Not a bad thing, just a safe one. Perhaps one of his most distinctive roles is in the long-running “Men in Black” franchise, as one-half of a secret government duo dispersed to police undercover aliens in New York City. It’s been his rock for the better half of two decades, and he returns for another round with, get this, “Men in Black 3”. Smith’s character, J, finds that he may have been warped into a different timeline, wherein his partner of 15 years, K, was killed four decades prior. He then takes it upon himself to travel back to 1969 (by time, rather than car), saving K before his untimely fate and remedying the space-time continuum. Oh yeah, and saving the world, of course.

“Men in Black 3” has had a long, storied history in getting to the screen, including a halt midway into production in order to finish the script, which in spite of the $215 million budget…wasn’t exactly, hem, completed. Resentful attitude, you say? Never. Creative re-tinkering, they say? Never. The result is a film lopsided in tone and quality with moments sporadically veering from the dull to the delightful. “Men in Black 3” is a pastiche of wisecracks, action-sequences, plot-twists and digital bugs whose charm isn’t intended to stem from them, but rather, the pace at which they’re lobbed. Needless to say, it doesn’t quite work.

There is something seriously damaged about “Men in Black 3”, evident from the second the credits begin to roll: tone. This is not a film taking itself or its audience seriously, and that’s not traditionally objectionable, were it not so dead-set on simplifying its dialogue and situations down to the simplest possible combination of words. Instead of having a villain with some degree of depth or texture to him, we literally get conversations in which two versions of him converse with each other, discussing “his” problems. This is a film in which an impending alien invasion is established and suddenly depicted, all within a 60-second timespan. It’s not economic storytelling in the vein of, say, the recent “Mission Impossible”. It’s simple laziness.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld’s ambitions seem to have dimmed progressively as he’s continued with the series. 1997’s first installment seemed to, underneath all the quirk and all the goo, a fairly vital message about finding ways to assign meaning to our lives. With his flawed 2002 sequel, while focusing more on the spectacle of his alien anarchy, he still found a heartfelt love story between Smith’s character and Rosario Dawson. With “Men in Black 3” he’s become so buried under all his responsibilities as coordinator that he’s neglected to lend any heart, any soul to it. It’s all mechanism and no function, with a story that’s as quickly forgotten as its protagonists after one of their little memory-wipe gadgets. I mean sure, Will Smith is charming and series newcomer Josh Brolin brings dry humor and humanity to a revitalized K. But then, when isn’t Will Smith charming and Josh Brolin dry? They could have at least made the picture pretty. D+

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