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Jason Wallis ‘Men in Black 3’ forgets the fun

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, June 1, 2012 7:28 am

You ever get to the point where you’re tempted to swear off Hollywood studio pictures forever? I get there sometimes, but then I remember that, although it sounds terribly crass to say, the studio system is capable of producing great work — the best work, even, and I say that as an avid admirer of arthouse/foreign cinema.

Almost any concept, no matter how seemingly stupid or inconsequential, can be turned into something truly special. We’ve seen it happen. As I’ve said before, all you need is some actual talent (it is plentiful, I assure you), a little creativity and, for the love of God, a small modicum of effort. Voila! Instant entertainment.

But then you run into a stretch of movies like the one we’ve just seen, and all that “glass half-full” stuff starts to sound a little ridiculous. Is the honor of seeing the occasional masterpiece worth the countless hours of effort wasted on the veritable avalanche of insulting drivel that comes crashing down from Hollywood on a regular basis? Are the intermittent “good” movies enough to tip the scale? I have this column to attend to and am a bit of a glutton for punishment besides, so in the end I would say yes. But I have to admit, it’s close. And movies like “Men in Black 3” are closing the gap more and more each week.

But we’ll have (a bit) more on that in a moment. First, a quick word about next week: I had initially planned to review “Piranha 3DD,” but discovered that it is no longer opening in wide release — and in any case, I was not aware that director Alexandre Aja had been replaced by a random stooge. So that’s off the table, and you can bet that I also plan to skip “For Greater Glory” (Cuban actor Andy Garcia’s casting as a Mexican is … questionable) and “Battlefield: America” (also known as “How Do I Reach These Keeeedz?”), because I’m not that big of a glutton. This leaves “Snow White and the Huntsman” … I guess? Man, am I ready for “Prometheus.”

A while ago, I was doing some light research on “Men in Black 3” and found that Barry Sonnenfeld, who helmed the first two installments, had returned for another go ‘round. I was initially pleased with this news, as having directors continue their successful work strikes me as generally a good thing, and was I willing to entertain the idea, however unlikely, that the first sequel was the unfortunate result of some terrible and mysterious brand of studio interference. But then I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I had heard the man’s name, and went to his filmography to investigate.

So here’s the situation: After seeing a successful start with the “Addams Family” movies, “Get Shorty” and the first “Men in Black,” poor ol’ Sonnenfeld apparently suffered some kind of debilitating creative lapse and proceeded to pump out “Wild Wild West,” “MiB2” and “Big Trouble” over a particularly dark four-year period. Four years after that, he was given another shot with a little movie called “RV.” I think that goes a long way toward explaining why he hasn’t been heard from since.

“MiB3” was, I suppose, intended as a celebratory ditty, and a chance for Sonnenfeld to demonstrate that his years in the Hollywood system haven’t yet rendered him a permanent idiot. It fails on both counts, and although it is not without its (relatively) strong points, one can’t help but dwell on the question of how so much potential could be so recklessly squandered.

Yes, there’s the large budget, which should have ensured that the film’s visual effects are at least more impressive that those in the first installment, released 15 years ago (they aren’t). But more important is the film’s intriguing storyline, which finds MiB agent J (Will Smith, who needless to say has done better work) traveling 40 years into the past to prevent the death of his partner K (Tommy Lee Jones, who is switched out for Josh Brolin in short order) and the destruction of Earf at the hands of a powerful alien biker-beatnik (Jermaine Clement). Throw in some cool stuff about infinite and simultaneous parallel realities, and baby — you’ve got a sci-fi stew going.

Yet this promising setup results in very little. Slight and breezy to a fault, the film frequently seems to forget that it is supposed to be a fun, modern sci-fi action-comedy, and is instead content to rely almost exclusively on outrageously outdated special effects, lame action sequences and Smith’s even more lame one-liners. The character development is thin (a shame, since Smith and Brolin share a decent amount of chemistry), and Brolin’s spot-on Tommy Lee Jones impression isn’t enough to make up for that. Future Oscar winner Michael Stuhlbarg (best known for “A Serious Man,” “Hugo” and his scene-stealing role in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) comes closer to making the whole thing “worth it” with his delightful, nebbishy performance as a particularly helpful interdimensional being, but in the end such bright spots are just not worth the hassle.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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