Clever people have worked hard (albeit for more money than most of us will see in a lifetime) to make Men in Black III look as if it has a reason for existing. Given that Tommy Lee Jones’s deadpan Agent K has shriveled to the point where he’s now merely prunish, it was a fine idea to invent a plot in which Will Smith’s Agent J hurtles back in time to save the life of his mentor, and a better one to cast another actor. As the younger K, Josh Brolin wears a semi-squashed nose (it is age-appropriately less spread), slits his eyes, and replicates the music in Jones’s voice — that weary, quarter-tone-up-the-scale Southern sigh that makes good comebacks bluesy.
They’ve cast a still-untapped major talent — Jemaine Clement, of Flight of the Conchords — as the snarling extraterrestrial villain Boris “the Animal” and concocted a fascinating character in Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), a disheveled entity hidden under multiple layers of clothes and driven mad by his ability (more curse than gift) to see multiple futures at once. Such agreeable personalities as Emma Thompson (as the new boss), the dishy Brit Alice Eve (as the younger Thompson), and Bill Hader (as Andy Warhol!) flit in and out. The finished product is in a different league than the whompingly terrible Men in Black II — it hits its marks. But it’s not inventive enough to overcome the overarching inertia, the palpable absence of passion.
Barry Sonnenfeld is a puzzling director — so smart, so worldly, so plugged into the community of hipsters (he got his start as a cinematographer for Joel and Ethan Coen), and so square. For some reason, he loves putting his subjects dead center in the frame — doorknob-dead. A setting that cries out for bustle and throwaway gags gets served up on a slab. The only casual thing is his handling of the violence — darts in peoples’ brains — which is more graphic than it needs to be and doesn’t gibe with the jokey tone. Bystanders are just fodder.
The script was enough of a mess to stop the shooting for high-priced rewrites, but you know what they say about washing garbage. Better lines would have helped Smith, who delivers rat-a-tat arias of desperation and long, ironic monologues to onlookers who’ve seen too much and whose memories he’s about to zap — by my (imprecise) count, one out of ten jokes gets a solid laugh. Clement has a roaring entrance in the wittily storyboarded prison-break overture, spitting his invectives through his Jagger lips and a mouthful of giant, rotted incisors; and he’s funny when he goes back to the late sixties and meets his younger, biker self and all they can do is bellow at each other. But he’s stuck spewing the same second-rate comebacks (“Agree to disagree,” “Don’t call me ‘the Animal’”), and he grows tiresome. At least Hader’s Warhol — surrounded by Factory creatures far stranger than the sundry aliens — has nice moments, and Stuhlbarg’s Griffin is an original. Instead of going for a manic, Robin Williams–like spritz, Griffin relays visions of possible timelines (each branching into entirely different futures) with a kind of beatific resignation, having long abandoned the idea of holding it all together.
As usual in the Men in Black pictures, there are amusingly outlandish alien effects: the head that whines while being used as a bowling ball; the dart-spitting scorpionlike creature that inserts itself into Boris’s hand with puppyish affection. Bo Welch’s design of J and K’s headquarters continues to take your breath away, the sleek, white-on-white interiors looking as if they’ve been fashioned from some hard plastic substance unknown by the rest of Earth, beautifully setting off the agents’ skinny black suits and ties. You can imagine the sinking feeling of Sonnenfeld, Smith, and company, standing around those stunning sets and thinking, “Why is this script not working?” A better question would have been, “Where is the love?”