Men in Black

For the second July in a row, Will Smith stares out at us from the cover of Newsweek, selling an overhyped movie about aliens. Underneath his picture — he’s posing with co-star Tommy Lee Jones — is a blurb anointing Men in Black “the summer’s coolest, funniest movie.” Cooler than Face/Off? Funnier than Hercules? If Newsweek says it’s so, then it must be so. This is margarita hype — best taken with many grains of salt. If only Newsweek‘s bouquet were the only one being thrown.

Men in Black is the chosen movie of the season — the darling of punch-drunk critics battered by the grinding idiocy of Speed 2, the hollow glitz of Batman and Robin, the crude pyrotechnics of Con Air. There’s a touching element of wishful thinking in the reviews I’ve read; the movie is directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the former cinematographer (Raising Arizona) who went on to make the Addams Family movies and Get Shorty, and perhaps these critics want very badly to believe that his new film is witty, hip, inventive — everything it isn’t.

Tommy Lee Jones, as a hard-bitten government agent who keeps an eye on aliens living in Manhattan, gives his patented four-D performance — detached, dry, deadpan, droll — but he’s great at it, and the movie gains from having an actor of his gravity in such absurd situations (as Volcano did). Will Smith, as the hot-shot New York cop whom Jones recruits as a new Man in Black, has the film’s funniest moment, which has nothing to do with aliens. Filling out forms along with several other candidates, Smith gets tired of writing with the pages propped up in his lap; finally, he drags over a heavy table to write on, making enough noise to wake the dead.

Given its director and stars, Men in Black should have been a wacko classic to put alongside Ghostbusters and The Hidden (this movie’s basic parents). But the script, adapted by Ed Solomon (the Bill & Ted movies) from a comic book, betrays its shallow origins. The story is just a collection of sketches in which Jones and Smith run into farcical E.T.s. In the main plot, they’re on the trail of an evil “bug” that’s inhabited the skin of a farmer (Vincent D’Onofrio). After about the fifth repetition, the sight gag of D’Onofrio staggering around the streets like a spastic Dawn of the Dead reject wears very thin.

The aliens are rubbery and goofy and often repulsive, forever gushing blue slime or translucent puke. Men in Black seems calculated to go over big with ten-year-old boys; it also features a rocket-fast car and huge, bulbous weapons — except for Smith’s “noisy cricket,” a tiny gun that packs a megaton wallop. Once, that’s kind of funny. Four times, no.

Somewhere in the margins of the movie, Linda Fiorentino turns up as a lonely, antisocial coroner (“I hate the living”), and the film ends with the promise of a Woman in Black — an idea that makes Men in Black seem like the prequel to a more intriguing comedy. Smart and reserved, Fiorentino is the most memorable human on the screen — perhaps because Barry Sonnenfeld, who doesn’t seem all that interested in this material, shares her alienation from the boys-with-toys hijinks. So did I.

Explore posts in the same categories: comedy, comic-book, overrated, science fiction

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