There have been movies -- including special-effects movies -- that develop a genuine style from an onslaught of small gags and throwaways. On the far side, there was Stuart Gordon's ghoulish-tawdry-sassy Re-Animator; on the lighter, Gremlins 2 (directed by Joe Dante and written by Charles Haas) burst at the seams with broadsides and burlesques. Director Sonnenfeld and writer Solomon work too much like neatniks in Men in Black. They pepper the film with funny lines and ideas -- Agent K explains that the 1964 New York World's Fair was an elaborate cover-up for alien landings: "Why else would we hold it in Queens?" But even then you feel that the filmmakers are tossing off clever concepts rather than tapping into a paranoid vein. This movie peddles the tamest illusion of anarchy.
Edwards' entrance test for the agency registers as a parody of high school, with the Manhattan cop as the class clown in a room full of brown-nosers. But the joke doesn't quite ignite; the filmmakers, overachievers at heart, are too obvious about it. When joining the Men in Black, its members agree to eradicate their pasts and remove themselves from Earth time and history. In this ultimate fantasy of old-fashioned military idealism, service comes before fame, glory, or personal happiness. What gives the corps a grungy glamour is the funky gear: Blues Brothers clothes, Ray*Ban sunglasses, Ford LTDs. Yet there's nothing funky about the work of Sonnenfeld and Solomon. They court the audience like schoolroom apple-polishers. They're too intent on softening us up for a series.
It's a relief to see a summer extravaganza derive humor from setting off a tall tale with diminutive effects. A regal tawny cat, a tough-talking pug, wormlike creatures swigging coffee, a tiny benign alien lodged in a humanoid brainpan, and glimpses of worlds and galaxies the size of marbles are among the "small-is-beautiful" pleasures of Men in Black. But without a central comic energy to fuse and fuel them, effects are all they remain. Many of the aliens in this movie speak an indecipherable blend of grunts and languages. They might as well be saying, "Plus ca change ....
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