Tuesday, September 15, 2009


The idea for “Men In Black” (**1/2 OUT OF ****), the latest alien opus about cracking down on extraterrestrials hiding out on earth, has a galaxy of surreal comic potential. If you’re looking for a moderately entertaining, mega-budgeted, far-sided farce that vapor locks just shy of “Ghostbusters,” then “Men In Black” is your ticket. Even if this uneven outer limits comedy doesn’t beam you up, its alleged million-dollar-per-minute special effects that infest the plot with a spawn of dorky aliens should impress you. Despite its abundant sight-gags and eye-popping aliens, “Men In Black” frizzles because it relies on the familiar oxidize the earth plot. “Men-In-Black” is a great looking movie hampered by a lame plot. The film is based on Lowell Cunningham’s obscure but sensational Marvel comic from the early 1990s. The story sounds like “Dragnet” meets “Ghostbusters.” The subversive but inventive Ed Solomon script struggles to keep a deadpan lid on its diabolical lunacy so that its gags will appear twice as funny. Basically, it’s the old idea of getting more mileage out of a joke by telling it as if you weren’t aware of the humor. The irreverent humor in “Men In Black” is so dry and sporadic that it sometimes fails to enthrall. You know that you’re watching a comedy, and you even laugh at what you see. After all, you know that these guys are straining to be hilarious. But they’re not funny enough all of the time to make you forget that they’re struggling so hard to make you laugh. Writer Ed Solomon wastes too much time integrating Will Smith’s character into the action and not enough time incorporating Linda Fiorentino’s character. The story never generates any suspense, just a lot of pastel slime. The ending is outrageously implausible even by this wacky elastic standards of this fantasy. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith impersonate a couple of laced-strait Federal agents who work for a ultra-hush, hush agency known only as INS Division 6. Headquartered out of sight in Manhattan, INS 6 licenses, monitors, and polices all alien activity on Earth. According to the movie, about fifteen-hundred aliens reside on the planet in a state of apolitical harmony. Any alien critter that goes AWOL gets busted by these INS 6 dudes. When we first meet J, played by Smith, he is a New York cop whose been close-encountered. INS 6 recruits him because he nearly caught the alien. (If Will Smith doesn’t watch out, he is going to be type-cast as the John Wayne of alien butt kickers.) INS 6 chief Zed (Rip Torn) teams J with veteran alien buster K (Tommy Lee Jones). Even if you can tolerate the long expository build up, the story suffers again because these characters never develop the camaraderie of the “Ghostbusters.” After a UFO crashes into his pick-up truck, a creepy redneck farmer named Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio) goes gunning for the aliens. They’re a bunch of murderously mutant cockroaches. They zap Edgar instead and take control of his body. (This scene recalls the Stephen King episode in the 1982 movie “Creepshow.”) Edgar stumbles through the rest of the movie like a zombie. He’s on a weird quest to kill two Arkillian aliens disguised as human and pinch a trinket hanging around a cat’s neck that contains the galaxy. When he gets it, the Arkillian threat to atomize the planet unless our heroes can recover the bauble. What we don’t learn about the aliens, the filmmakers are happy to show us. There are aliens galore in “Men In Black.” They resemble mutants sprung island of Dr. Suess. None of them are particularly threatening, but some are ugly and squid-like. The scene where J (Smith) assists a mother alien in birth is pretty funny, but it doesn’t match the impact of the Billy Crystal calf delivery in “City Slickers.” Juveniles will drool over the flashy gadgets. One device called a “neuralizer” resembles a tire gauge crossed with a pin-light. Our heroes use it to erase the short term memory of any spectators that they encounter in the line of duty. Remember, we’re not supposed to know that the aliens walk among us. Our heroes don their cool looking Ray Bans to dampen the effect on them. The Ray Bans are already available in stores, but you’ll probably have to wait for the chrome plated guns. Judging from its opening weekend haul of $50 million plus dollars, “Men In Black” should at least inspire a sequel as well as merchandising out the universe. There’s a cartoon series already in the works. Director Barry Sonnenfeld pulls out all stops. The hokey dragon-fly in the opening scene sets the smart aleck tone for the movie. One of the best scenes is the jewelry store confrontation which the moviemakers have already given up in the previews of “Men In Black.” The witty use of tabloid newspaper to tell the real truth is ironic, and the real story behind the New York’s World Fair is a hoot! Sonnenfeld keeps the light weight action moving at light speed. Sometimes the movie zips by so quickly they you have trouble keeping up with it. But “Men In Black” lacks the bizarre finesse of Sonnenfeld’s two “Adams Family” movies. No complaints about the casting. Tom Lee Jones of “The Fugitive” delivers the kind of stoic performance that would put Jack Webb to shame. Jones’s grim-faced, buttoned-down expressions would be the envy of Detective Sergeant Friday. Jones proves himself a master comedian with impeccable timing again and again in “Men In Black.” He never lets the zaniness of the last joke, special effects, or plot-twist get in his way to his next gag. William Smith of “Independence Day” blends his streetwise, ebonic, home boy charm with the sartorial elegance of his character as an interesting contrast to Jones’ tight-lipped stooge. These co-stars work well together, except that their cardboard characters never evolve in the two frantic days covered in the movie. You may remember actor Vincent D’Onofrio for his brilliant performance as a psychotic military recruit in “Full Metal Jacket.” He manages to be vicious, brutal, and stupid as ghoulish Edgar. The villain here mutates into an extremely upset bug whose the size of a dragon. Linda Fiorentino of “Jade” is cast as a sexy medical examiner whose seen one too alien corpses. Veteran character actor Rip Torn lends capable support as their gruff boss Zed. “Men In Black” misfires more often than it hits. The exam scene is as irritable as Edgar’s cockroaches are genuinely disgusting. You exit the movie theatre dazzled by the seamless special effects, but you may find that the dry, off-beat humor as memorable as a flash of light from a neutralizer.

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