' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Men in Black

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Some Drivel On...Men in Black

As summer movies have trended bigger (and longer), the larger the narrative stakes of these tentpoles have grown. Yet if the fate of the whole world frequently hangs in the balance, the movies themselves rarely feel like it, which Alexander Huls noted for The New York Times all the way back in 2014, writing that Hollywood had succeeded in killing death. By formulaically presenting death and then offering such easy resurrection afterwards, Huls noted, and which the recent “Avengers: Endgame” took to its (il)logical extreme, death is rendered meaningless, insignificant next to the power of a sequel. This occurred to me in the wake of “Men in Black International”, the fourth film in a series dating back to 1997 about the eponymous group of government operatives tasked with policing earthly alien activity, which I did not see but whose opening weekend haul of $28 million was, in the parlance of box office, considered “muted” which meant it “bombed.”

The original blockbuster “Men in Black” was prevented from earning 1997’s top box office spot only by the strength of then all-time box office champ “Titanic.” And if fans loved the first MIB, so did (ye gods!) The Critics, mostly. Owen Gleiberman, writing for EW, only gave Barry Sonnenfeld’s film a C+, writing “after a while the nonstop blitheness begins to make everything seem strangely inconsequential.” Later he writes: “‘Men in Black’ celebrates the triumph of attitude over everything else — plausibility, passion, any sense that what we’re watching actually matters.” Thing is, Owen’s not wrong; I just view his analysis as a positive, not a negative. Other critics felt the same way. “A lot of big-budget special-effects films are a hair this side of self-parody and don’t know it,” the late great Roger Ebert wrote. “‘Men in Black’ knows it and glories in it.” By turning everything into a joke, as Gleiberman notes, Sonnenfeld cracked the code that modern day blockbusters are content to ignore, both dialing the stakes all the way up even as he cools them all the way off, emblemized in the scene at MIB headquarters when Earth’s destruction is threatened by an alien race and we hear Will Smith, off screen, remark “That’s bullshit.”

That pithy line reading by Smith counts for a lot. If modern day blockbusters evince any joy, it is typically from their twinkly performances, like Robert Downey Jr. self-knowingly vamping through the “Avengers” films, or Johnny Depp stealing the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” right out from under its elephantine plot and special effects. The latter is instructive. “Men in Black” did not hide its commercial ambition with an obvious Ray-Ban tie-in just as “Pirates of the Caribbean” was literally based on a Disney theme park ride. But Smith, as his character, Agent J says, really did make those Ray-Bans look good, transcending the tie-in. Indeed, “Men in Black’s” most famous recurring joke is how its agents flash a so-called neuralyzer in the eyes of any human who has inadvertently encountered an E.T. to wipe that person’s memory, the agents’ Ray-Bans preventing their own mind-erasure, never more memorably than when Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), MIB partner and mentor of Smith’s J, keeps wiping the memory of medical examiner Laurel Weaver (Linda Fiorentino) , at one point so suddenly that J barely gets his specs back on, a swift bit of physical comedy Smith plays to the hilt.

I worked as a movie theater concessionist during the summer of 1997 and I would time my breaks to watch this scene over and over to just delight in the comic rhythms of Smith and Fiorentino. Those rhythms, in fact, are more the point than the narratively-important alien autopsy she is half-unknowingly performing, rendering this whole sequence not as, say, sci-fi screwball but just plain old screwball, with Smith’s character masquerading as a doctor, resulting in hysterical verbal misdirection and even a flicker of attraction between the fake doctor and the real one. Writing for Salon at the time, Charles Taylor notes the “flirtation between Smith and Fiorentino looks as if it’s going somewhere after she tells him he has beautiful eyes, but it gets left by the wayside.” This might simply stem from Smith’s too-frequent Tom Cruise-ish cinematic sexlessness, or it might stem from something deeper and more disturbing, as Taylor suggests, noting the actors’ opposing skin colors. Either way, it’s one of the films few missed opportunities.

Then again, the real relationship here is between Smith and Jones, the latter’s patented unamused stoicism playing perfectly off the former’s nigh manic energy. As the autopsy scene concludes, the two men exit the premises as J asks “K, did you ever flashy-thing me?” K replies: “No.” So J asks again: “I ain’t playing, K. Did you ever flashy-thing me?” K replies: “No.” If Smith intensifies his voice and alters the wording and cadence, Jones responds with the exact same flat beat, emblematic of their push and pull throughout, a yin and yang as crucial to the film’s tension as much as the villainous alien tied up in a quest to claim a galaxy.

That’s not to downplay the galaxy quest, which has a decent payoff, though it’s less interesting for the quest itself than for Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance, an incredible, nigh indescribable feat of inane physicality in which, playing an alien inside a human body, he’s something like Frankenstein’s Monster as a chaotic breakdancer. In Vulture’s recent oral history of the character, D’Onofrio talks about Sonnenfeld leaving him a great deal of creative space, and which the actor then indulged by adding practical effects, placing basketball braces on his knees to lock in his movement to help generate that uniquely stiff yet uncontrollable walk. It’s such a batty turn that D’Onofrio admits he made the production nervous, as if he might alienate audiences. That is reminiscent of  Disney’s initial fears about Depp’s theatrics in “Pirates of the Caribbean”, though we know how that turned out and, of course, how D’Onofrio’s work turned out too, each one suggesting that would-be blockbusters might do well to give up carbon copying and gives its performers and its makers a little more creative freedom.

No comments: