Review: “Men in Black 3”

Josh Brolin and Will Smith star in "Men in Black 3".After nearly four years absent from the big screen, Will Smith decided to make his return with a sequel no one asked for. “Men in Black 3” could practically be imagined by anyone blessed with an ounce of imagination, and until the third act, that’s about what we get. The first film was a smash because it cleverly turned conspiracy theory sci-fi into something accessible and fun. The second was a hit because it was a clearly labeled successor to the first. This one should do well for the same reasons as the sequel, but the fatigue should be apparent to everyone. Even with a decade-long breather, the series feels exhausted.

There’s adequate promise to be found in capsule descriptions of the film’s plot, which read like so: Agent J (Smith) travels back to 1969 in order to prevent the murder of his partner, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), by a hideous space alien (Jemaine Clement). While there, he encounters K’s younger self (Josh Brolin), and finds himself at the mercy of the times.

The time warp plot should have provided ample opportunities for fish-out-of-water wit and groovy scenery, but director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen are either too cautious approaching the period or just can’t think of much to do with it. Glimpses of the Men in Black headquarters and 1960s New York City supply little interest, and even seemingly inspired touches like a meeting with Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) pop up but prove to be ephemeron that tease something more engaging.

The aliens themselves, which were once fascinating, now seem like afterthoughts, rehashes of versions created for the screen countless times before. How many ways can one reveal a human to actually be a CGI reptile or a grotesque CGI giant insect and keep our interest? Whatever the number is, this series hits it early on in installment three.

Smith, whose last theatrical release (“Seven Pounds”) was one of his rare flops, plays it safe here. With this he aims to make his return one that is guaranteed to earn enough that he still appears to be the nigh-invulnerable box office gold he once was. It’s a sound decision, though one that fails to earn him movie star points, the sort of artistic and financial karma that assures us an actor can open major films that don’t involve comic heroes or franchises.

Jones looks characteristically glum, and given the task of bookending the movie but without much else to do, it’s hard to blame him. Brolin is a dead-ringer for Jones, physically and acoustically, and imbues the pinball-like bounce of the scenes with a freshness that speeds along the otherwise mundane proceedings. Clement, often the bright spot in weak films, is so laden with villainous prosthetics that his character just as well could have been played by any actor willing to spend a fourth of his day for several months in a makeup chair.

Despite Brolin’s fine mimicry, the film’s standout performance is from Michael Stuhlbarg of “A Serious Man” and “Boardwalk Empire” fame. He steals several scenes as a clairvoyant alien refugee who envisions endless variations of the future, whittling them down one by one as events unfold. Stuhlbarg’s moments, filled with an endearing wonder for the universe, add an unexpected sci-fi tinted warmth to the later stages of the film, as does a thoughtful closing sequence that puts the story into a nearly heartbreaking context.

But by then, these virtues prove just enough to make the movie passable, hardly necessary viewing. This entry needed offbeat charisma and real energy from its leading man, not just a decent ending. Unfortunately, no movie is made great by dent of a few good scenes, even if they come loaded towards the back. Here’s hoping that whatever would-be blockbuster Smith chooses next, it’s good for something other than his checking in with the consciousness of audiences.