The Men in Black movies have always played its subtlest joke on its audience. In 1997, the first of the sci-fi action comedies established the premise of extraterrestrials living among us Earthlings, monitored by an unelected agency that uses "neuralyzers" to wipe the memories of ordinary citizens who discover their existence. Fans of the hit movies cheer the exploits of a secret police force that disdains such ideas as privacy, memory, and the right to know the truth. Agent Mulder of "The X-Files" would weep.
Perhaps someone neuralyzed our collective recollections of 2002's lousy Men in Black II. Director Barry Sonnenfeld and stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones have returned for a close encounter of the third kind. Men in Black 3 tests the idea that a film can be worth seeing if its leading men have no passion for the project. As Agents J and K, Smith and Jones seem resolutely uninterested in the special effects-driven hijinks surrounding them, but at least they're orbited by a lively group of supporting players.
A heavily made-up Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords plays Boris the Animal, an alien archvillain who's intent on wreaking vengeance on K because of an incident 40 years earlier. J and K investigate some silliness involving otherworldly seafood at a Chinese restaurant and get wise to Boris' scheme. Unfortunately, the bad guy escapes to the past and kills Agent K, altering the present-day timeline. J turns out to be the only one who remembers K in the present, and goes back to 1969 to save his partner and avert an alien invasion.
Men in Black 3's first act is listless, ugly, and laden with weak jokes, including the tired shtick of J offering life lessons to hypnotized spectators. But it improves with Jones written out of existence, like a party free of a dour chaperone. The screenwriters take inspiration by plunking smartass J in the less racially tolerant 1960s, as white elevator passengers cower in J's presence and cops pull him over for Driving While Black.
As the young Agent K, Josh Brolin gives a hilarious, deadpan impression of Tommy Lee Jones, only with a little more joie de vivre, since part of the film reveals the back story of why K's such a tight-lipped sourpuss. Compared to their high-tech equipment of the present-day, the "Mad Men"-era agents have bulky gizmos prone to malfunction. The contemporary Men in Black office swarms with CGI-rendered creatures, but in the past, the aliens look more like people in brightly colored robes and makeup, like Hollywood space invaders from the '60s and earlier.
Most of the acting ensemble seems delighted to be there, including Alex Chernus as a time travel expert, Bill Hader as Andy Warhol, and especially "Boardwalk Empire's" Michael Stuhlbarg as Griff, a fifth-dimensional entity who can see all futures and alternate universes. Griff's perspective on probability and future events not only provides a convenient means of explaining the film's time-travel paradoxes, but Stuhlbarg's fey, cheerful performance also gives Men in Black 3 a surprising amount of warmth. The film's finale, set against the backdrop of one of the year's most famous moments, delivers exciting cliffhangers and a heartfelt twist.
Men in Black 3 functions as a kind of time machine to the blockbusters of the 1990s that partnered ironic humor with lavish visual effects. Men in Black 3 alternates between hyperactive set pieces and sluggish interpersonal scenes, but sends out its viewers in much higher spirits than you'd expect from the first 20 minutes. It even makes Men in Black 4 sound like a welcome idea, as long as it's stuck in the 1960s.