Fade To Gray

In the repetitive `Men in Black II,' filmakers run short of the cleverness that made the first aliens-among-us comedy so cool.

Movie Review

July 03, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

** 1/2

Men in Black II gets some credit because, in an era when blockbusters come "super-sized," like fast food, its director, Barry Sonnenfeld, has continued to downsize.

The most refreshing thing about the original Men in Black was that it was relatively small - a modest, slapdash, 98-minute special-effects farce. The most refreshing thing about Men in Black II is that it is 10 minutes shorter. Of course, it's often true that less is more. But in these films less is less, because Sonnenfeld fails to make the most of his concept and his characters.

Once again, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith star as Agent Kay and Agent Jay, respectively. They're two of the black-suited, Ray-Banned alien-busters who regulate Earth-dwelling extra-terrestrials from a base in New York City and use a device called a "neuralyzer" to make civilians who stumble upon goopy space folk forget they ever saw them. This fact sums up the Men in Black series so far. It's amiable, not memorable.

Men in Black react to close encounters of the third and (perhaps) fourth kinds (such as ingestion) with a shrug. But there's a limit to the laughs you can win with a shrug. So when the fate of the world hinges on the MIB team's trigger fingers, not enough hangs in the comic-dramatic balance.

Director Sonnenfeld and his new writers, Robert Gordon and Barry Fanard, concoct a story so slender that they fill it out by running the same cheesy In Search of ... TV parody twice. It tells how 25 years ago, Earth almost got caught between two warring alien factions, the Zarthans and the Kylothians. MIB chief Zed (Rip Torn), determined to stay neutral, ordered the Zarthans' weapon of last resort, the Light of Zartha, off the planet. But a quarter-century later comes the return of the ruthless Kylothian named Serleena. (Lara Flynn Boyle is one note - coolly seething - in the role.) She's a creature who looks like an inside-out squid when she isn't disguised as a Victoria's Secret model. And she's convinced that the Light never left Earth.

Smith's Agent Jay must bring Jones' Agent Kay out of retirement - and de-neuralyze him - because Kay was the man in charge of the case and the only one who can locate the Light before Serleena does.

What hurts more than the movie's overly simple plot is its repetitive and predictable humor. The visual jokes tend to be sci-fi gross-outs or gags about scale - a spaceship the size of a lava lamp, a toilet bowl the size of a room, worlds contained in paper-weights or lockers. The Worm Guys return, but the bulk of their retro wise-guy humor derives from them living in a bachelor pad proportioned for slight, spineless aliens.

Agent Jay, who's become top gun in the department, despairs of ever finding an equal partner. Sporting a new world-weary authority, Will Smith plays off the farcical thickness of Jay's current partner Tee (Patrick Warburton) with a zingy nonchalance. When that schtick wears off, Smith strikes sparks with a raspy-voiced, quipster pug named Frank. The pug wins the film's loudest laughs by shouting along with the car radio to "I Will Survive" and "Who Let the Dogs Out."

Jones displays his talent as a superb put-on artist and dry comedian when Agent Kay is still retired and working as the postmaster of Truro, Mass. You'll laugh to hear him toss the book - that is, the U.S. Postal Service manual - at anyone who doesn't properly wrap a parcel. And Rip Torn once again does his riotous dirty-bird stare as the head of the MIB.

But whenever the rudimentary plot or action set pieces kick in, the casual humor of the performers evaporates. There have been movies - including special-effects movies, such as Gremlins 2 - that develop genuine style from onslaughts of small gags and throwaways. Despite his reputation for oddball slapstick, Sonnenfeld doesn't build comic momentum - visually or verbally - and let it pay off big-time. He smudges the visualization of a giant worm-like thing racing through a New York subway tunnel. He shoots and cuts the workings of a de-neuralyzer so haphazardly that he delivers none of the Rube Goldberg giddiness that at one point must have been conceived for this contraption.

Last time out, Jones' Kay carried the "heart" load with his tale of a girl he left behind. This time, Smith's Jay falls in love with a beautiful pizza waitress (Rosario Dawson) who witnesses Serleena's villainy. Ultimately, the Men in Black films peddle an old-fashioned military idealism that fits the tenor of these times: service comes before fame, glory or personal happiness.

But the moviemakers fumble even this lucky piece of synchronicity: They give Jay a series of jokes about how blase New Yorkers are in the face of alien danger. That urban myth crumbled a little over 10 months ago.

Men in Black II

Starring Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Lara Flynn Boyle

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Rated PG-13 (Sexual innuendo, cartoon violence)

Running time 88 minutes

Released by Sony/Columbia Pictures

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