Film Reviews

Galactic Mediocrity

One speech and one prop from Men in Black combine to sum up the movie. An alien in four-legged Earthly form delivers the speech: "You humans, when're you gonna learn that size doesn't matter? Just 'cause something's important doesn't mean it's not very, very small." The most refreshing thing about Men in Black is that it is relatively small. This 98-minute farce stars Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as black-suited alien-busters, members of a New York-based supragovernmental police squad that controls the comings and goings of a multitude of extraterrestrials living incognito on Earth. Jones, Smith and the other Men in Black wield the pertinent prop, a small silver rod called a "neuralyzer": Jones describes it as "a gift from some friends 'out of town.' " The red-eyed rod zaps people's memories. Thanks to the neuralyzer, civilians who stumble upon goopy space folk forget they ever saw them -- they carry hazy recollections of swamp gas instead. This, too, characterizes Men in Black. It's amiable, not memorable.

Though Steven Spielberg executive-produced, part of this film's intermittent charm is its low-key approach to splashy sci-fi. Most of the time, the Men in Black react to close encounters of the third kind and beyond (Jones does a wild Jonah number) with a shrug. But there's a limit to the laughs you can win with a shrug. When the fate of the world hinges on the MIB team's trigger fingers, not enough comedy or drama hangs in the balance. The converse of what that four-legged alien says is also true: Just because something's small doesn't mean it's important.

The director, Barry Sonnenfeld, and the writer, Ed Solomon, have mixed Lowell Cunningham's original hard-bitten comic book heroes with Roswell-style anxieties about elite cadres covering up alien visitations with anonymous efficiency. And they've emerged with a buddy movie. Tommy Lee Jones is Agent K, a grizzled MIB veteran; Will Smith is Randall Edwards, an NYPD detective who grabs K's attention after he chases down a cephalopod on foot. "Tenacity," says K. "That I can use." In parallel lines of action, a brilliant, scurrilous outer space "bug" (Vincent D'Onofrio) murders an upstate New York redneck named Edgar and assumes his identity, while K enlists Edwards and shows him the ropes. The good guys and the bad critter converge when bug-Edgar commandeers an extermination van (after killing the driver) and clatters into the city, where he hopes to steal ... a galaxy.

The plot is simple, but the milieu is complex in an overcalculated way. The director and writer are so anxious to make everything about it clear that they rehash the same points again and again. It's hard to say whether the neuralyzer is a running joke or just a repetitive one. In a moment filled with promise, K tells Edwards that, for aliens, New York City is like the Casablanca of Casablanca without the Nazis: a way station for political refugees. Unfortunately, the filmmakers think this premise is so juicy and inviting that they merely lay it down without elaboration or embellishment. Where's the audacity of belting out a national anthem in a political duel? Where's the temptation to bend ideals for love? Men in Black is Casablanca without Nazis, and without much to say about love, betrayal, loyalty or humanity either -- the stuff of adult fun.

The performers' best moments arrive early. Edwards says that the cephalopod told him that the world will end. "Did he say when?" K responds -- and Jones asks the question with an intense simplicity that, for an instant, fulfills the movie's potential for ghastly hilarity. Jones can be a superb put-on artist and dry comedian; he flies with any plausible business the moviemakers give him. You'll laugh to hear him merrily sing along with Elvis's rendition of "Promised Land" on an eight-track tape. But the filmmakers set up Will Smith to be the comic engine. At this point in his screen career, Smith's persona stands for nothing more than glib, clean-cut hipness. He's almost always genial. He got better in Six Degrees of Separation as the film went on, and his innocence stood him in good stead as he survived Independence Day. Too bad he can't bring to Men in Black the satiric self-adoration that made Eddie Murphy sizzle in 48HRS.; too bad he and Jones don't share the chemistry that Murphy and Nick Nolte did. Smith's ad libs and offhand gestures are uninspired; his straight man, Jones, garners the laughs.

Rip Torn does his riotous dirty-bird stare as the head of the MIB; D'Onofrio, in a change of pace, enacts the mind-body conflict comically as bug-Edgar; and Linda Fiorentino gives her bad-girl rep the once-over as a medical examiner with a knack for the teasing erotic non sequitur. Few films are in sorer need of more sex, less sap. Sadly, Fiorentino et al. have nowhere to go beyond encouraging first impressions. Because this is an Amblin production, Jones gets saddled with "heart." We realize too early that the girl he left behind won't be left behind much longer.

There have been movies -- including special-effects movies -- that develop a genuine style from an onslaught of small gags and throwaways. On the far side, there was Stuart Gordon's ghoulish-tawdry-sassy Re-Animator; on the lighter, Gremlins 2 burst at the seams with broadsides and burlesques. Director Sonnenfeld and writer Solomon work too much like neatniks in Men in Black. They pepper the film with funny lines and ideas -- Agent K explains that the 1964 New York World's Fair was an elaborate cover-up for alien landings: "Why else would we hold it in Queens?" But even then you feel that the filmmakers are tossing off clever concepts rather than tapping into a paranoid vein. This movie peddles the tamest illusion of anarchy.

Edwards's entrance test for the agency registers as a parody of high school, with the Manhattan cop as the class clown in a room full of brownnosers. But the joke doesn't quite ignite; the filmmakers, overachievers at heart, are too obvious about it. When joining the Men in Black, its members agree to eradicate their pasts and remove themselves from Earth time and history. In this ultimate fantasy of old-fashioned military idealism, service comes before fame, glory or personal happiness. What gives the corps a grungy glamour is the funky gear: Blues Brothers clothes, Ray-Ban sunglasses, Ford LTDs. Yet there's nothing funky about the work of Sonnenfeld and Solomon. They court the audience like schoolroom apple-polishers. They're too intent on softening us up for a series.

It's a relief to see a summer extravaganza derive humor from setting off a tall tale with diminutive effects. A regal tawny cat, a tough-talking pug, wormlike creatures swigging coffee, a tiny benign alien lodged in a humanoid brainpan and glimpses of worlds and galaxies the size of marbles are among the "small-is-beautiful" pleasures of Men in Black. But without a central comic energy to fuse and fuel them, effects are all they remain. Many of the aliens in this movie speak an indecipherable blend of grunts and languages. They might as well be saying, "Plus ca change ...."

Men in Black.
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. With Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith.
Rated PG-13.
98 minutes.

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Michael Sragow