By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
That memory-erasing Neuralizer used by agents J and K comes in handy with Men in Black 3, a threequel so lethargic that it can't even muster a Roman numeral in the title.
Forgetting the scattershot second movie is easy. Not recalling how wonderful the original was 15 years ago is a necessity. Men in Black 3 will leave few fond memories of its own.
The franchise was funnier when Will Smith's Agent J was a rookie, a fresher, funkier prince serving as our surprised eyes and motor-mouth in an underworld of illegal aliens, the kinds from outer space. Before Tommy Lee Jones' K wasn't a character so deadpan repetitive that it can be replaced by another actor. When Rip Torn's blustery agent Zed and Frank the Pug were still around.
Men in Black 3 was reportedly scripted on the fly and it shows, with plot threads left dangling or hastily introduced to wrap things up. There's something wrong with a narrative requiring a babbling time continuum savant (Michael Stuhlbarg) to explain. Nobody's heart seems to be in this project except the 3-D technicians and Josh Brolin, cannily impersonating Jones.
If this movie truly cost $375 million to produce and market (as the L.A. Times reported), the biggest chunk isn't on the screen.
Barry Sonnenfeld begins his movie with promise, introducing a formidable villain named Boris the Animal (Flight of the Conchord's Jemaine Clement) escaping from a moon base prison. Boris is a hulking biker stereotype on steroids, cold-blooded and goggle-eyed, with one arm missing thanks to an encounter with K. He'll have his revenge, and his arm back, if he can leap backward in time and kill K first.
J will have none of that. He'll get back to 1969 first, beat Boris to the punch, and keep the younger K (Brolin) in the dark, to avoid a destiny-spoiling rift in time. There is no movie gimmick lazier or easier to mess up than time travel, so the screenplay offers Stuhlbarg's baffling multi-dimensional, quasi-coincidental possibilities as camouflage.
Men in Black 3 doesn't fully take advantage of the 1960s, the same way Dark Shadows recently fumbled chances to satirize '70s pop culture for laughs. There's one listless scene in which Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) is outed as an alien, and a nod to the way a sharply dressed black man driving a fancy car in 1969 would be regarded by cops. Other than that, the time period is needed only to circuitously invoke the Miracle Mets and Apollo 11, each replaceable by other teams, other launches.
That isn't saying Men in Black 3 is without fleeting pleasures. Brolin is terrific as K/Jones, mimicking the staccato drawl and pregnant pauses to perfection. Rick Baker's alien makeup effects are still grotesque marvels of the art, and impressive in volume. Smith can still wisecrack with the best of them, while also bringing the climax some unexpected emotional depth. The rest is ready for the Neuralizer.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.