MEN IN BLACK 3: I’d Have No Problem Pimp-Slapping the Shiznit Out of Andy Warhol

Men in Black 3 (2012) – Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld – Starring Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jemaine Clement, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alice Eve, and Emma Thompson.

Sigh.

Will Smith is one of the most successful movie stars in history and he’s earned the right to do whatever he damn well pleases, and I hate when people try to tell other people what they should be doing with their time – this athlete should retire, that musician shouldn’t have gone solo. Bogus. Let people spend their own time their own way.

So I’m not telling Smith what he should or should not be doing. I will say, however, that it is extremely disappointing that after a four-year absence, MEN IN BLACK 3 is the film he chose to came back for, when it’s been rumored he turned down the lead role in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Django Unchained. Coming back after a four-year absence to work with one of the top directors in the game, acting in a film that will certainly be unlike anything he’s done before would have sent a powerful message about where Will Smith wants to go as an actor in this next stage of his career. Eternally youthful though he may appear, Smith is now 43 years old, and while that doesn’t mean he’s anywhere close to being finished, when someone this big comes back after four years of being away, the returning film makes a statement.

As far as statements go, MEN IN BLACK 3 isn’t much of one.

I’m always curious to see what trailers a theater puts in front of a movie because it’s usually a pretty good sign of who the theater or studios feel will be watching the film they paid to see. The trailers before MIB3 were very telling: two kids movies (Brave and Madagascar 3), a Tyler Perry movie, and Amazing Spider-Man. The kids movies signify MIB3 is likely to have all-ages appeal, which makes sense. The Tyler Perry movie co-stars Eugene Levy and Denise Richards alongside his Madea character, so it’s a clear attempt to have some racial crossover success for the Madea franchise, which, given that MIB3 stars Smith, one of the most successful racial-crossover actors of all time, makes sense, too. And Amazing is here for the action/summer blockbuster crowd, which makes sense given how much bankable Will Smith is as a box office powerhouse.

So … based on these four trailers, my impression of MIB3 was that it was going to be a family-friendly, racially inclusive, summer blockbuster.

It is definitely all of those things.

It’s also rather boring, childish, simplistic, and in the wake of 2012′s two early cinematic juggernauts, The Hunger Games and The Avengers, staggeringly nostalgic.

Will Smith hasn’t come back and staked his claim to being daring, to being a great actor, to being a meaningful part of the cinematic future.

No, Will Smith has come back to be Dick Clark, hopelessly safe, nostalgic, and designed to make us feel comfortable.

Smith doesn’t deserve all the blame for the dopiness of MIB3, of course. Barry Sonnenfeld’s direction has an air of bored smugness to it, like all he has to do is point his camera and let Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and Rick Baker perform all their old tricks and the money will just come rolling in. Look, I like Smith, I like Jones, I like Josh Brolin, and I like the MEN IN BLACK franchise, but there’s nothing here that’s new or daring or exciting or vibrant. Who’s this movie for, really? Because The Hunger Games and The Avengers just got done showing us that the narrative bar on big money blockbusters has been raised. Never mind all of those idiotic critics who say those movies are without substantial plot or characterization, because they’re too lazy or stupid or elitist to see that there’s a galaxy of difference between what those films are attempting and what a film like MEN IN BLACK 3 delivers.

MEN IN BLACK 3 isn’t bad, but it’s wholly forgettable, and while the narrative decision to go back in time is a clever one, and while the film’s most enjoyable moments involve Josh Brolin channeling Tommy Lee Jones, it also robs us of why we watch the MIB films: seeing Smith and Jones interact. There’s the illusion of honest-to-goodness character growth here, but it almost all involves Smith and Brolin’s Agent K, not Jones’ Agent K.

Agent J and K (Smith and Jones) are still partners and still having the same old issues. Super duper bad guy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) breaks out of his moon prison and comes to Earth to travel back in time to kill Agent K before Agent K arrests him and shoots off his arm. Boris isn’t remotely scary, but if you’re five or six, he’s got a cool visual appearance and he talks with a British accent, so as a Saturday morning cartoon villain, he’s perfectly acceptable.

It’s easy to armchair quarterback, of course, but I think MIB3 would have been better off fully pushing in the direction of a kids’ movie. Smith’s attempt to resurrect his old cocky-but-lovable cinematic persona probably still works for children, but it no longer works for me. After seeing him nod his head and talk loudly and act exasperated and make an outlandish threat for the 857th time, I want something else. Seriously, look at that quote up above in the title: “I’d have no problem pimp-slapping the shiznit out of Andy Warhol.” Smith actually says this. In this movie. In 2012. Smith has become Dick Clark for people who look back fondly on the era when white people started talking like Snoop Dogg.

I don’t know. Do you want to hear anything else about the plot? Why? It doesn’t matter. J goes back to 1969 to save K’s life and attach an alien device to the Apollo 11 rocket. There’s some stupid alien who can see all different timelines and watching him makes me think, “So this is what happened to Mork and Mindy’s baby when he grew up.”

Or grew down.

Don’t look at me like that. You know what I’m talking about.

There’s nothing clever about MEN IN BLACK 3. Nothing much fun unless you’re in the mood to see Will Smith parodying Will Smith, or Josh Brolin doing his Tommy Lee Jones impression. I’ve seen reports that MIB3 cost $375 million to make and I just don’t see it. Rick Baker and his team do their usual bang up job, but there’s nothing fun here with the aliens. Smith manages to get a few laughs, like when he goes back to 1969 and steals a car and then gets mad at the white cops for pulling him over thinking he stole the car just because he’s a black man, when, in fact, he did steal the car – he just didn’t steal it because he was black.

Almost unbelievably, though, I left this dull film actually wanting to see MEN IN BLACK 4. I know. That credit goes to the likability of Smith and Jones, and because when J comes back from the past, K is different. The coldness between them has been thawed now that J knows that K feels responsible for the death of J’s dad. It alters the dynamic between them in a very real way, and I’d like to see a film where Smith and Jones are actual partners instead of antagonistic ones.

MEN IN BLACK 3 is like watching your favorite band from your high school years reunite after a decade apart and put out a new album that sounds like the old stuff from a technical sense, but not an emotional one. It’s like watching an actual band evolve into its own cover band.

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