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Time-Travel Transformation

by Laura Leon on May 30, 2012

Men in Black 3
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

A few weeks ago, during one of those bouts of sleeplessness where you mull over troubling work and family situations ad nauseum, I thought about Will Smith. Why, I’ll never know, but in my nocturnal fugue state, I asked myself, “What’s Will Smith been up to lately?” I see references to his kids (with Jada Pinkett Smith) in the magazines I peruse while waiting in the dental office, and my older boys sometimes watch reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but the actor himself seemed to be MIA.

Next thing I knew, my choices for a weekly review included Men in Black 3; here, at last, was Will Smith. While I was glad to find out he apparently isn’t sequestered in rehab, it seemed troubling that his return to the spotlight was in a sequel to a movie that appeared 10 years ago. That’s kind of like doing a sequel to Being There or Thelma and Louise. Why? Well, in this case, the reason may well have to do not so much with Smith or even erstwhile costar Tommy Lee Jones, as the alien-blasting Agents J and K, respectively, but rather, to give audiences the incredible pleasure of watching Josh Brolin utterly transform himself into Jones.

Men in Black 3 involves time travel back to the 1960s—an amazingly busy time as NASA prepared to tackle the moon, the Mets won an improbable World Series, and Andy Warhol turned the art world on its head—in order for Agent J to save Agent K from certain death. As with any plot involving time travel, there’s a lot that stretches the limits of imagination and logic, and when you throw into it things like Cracker Jacks prize facsimiles which must be affixed to the nose of the Apollo rocket, well, let’s just say you don’t want to hit the snack bar for fear of being completely left in the narrative dark. Still, director Barry Sonnenfeld keeps the momentum going, giving the proceedings a loopy kick that feels improbably good. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Griffin, a sweet dweeb in a ski mask and parka whose attempts to assist J and the young K (Brolin) intersect with countless foretellings of what’s about to happen, as the character is able to forecast any number of multidimensional “endings” to an action based on what’s happening now.

Smith is, as usual, solid and entertaining, especially in a high-rise—literally—fall into past eras, which has him colliding with plunging 1929 stockbrokers and wading through V-Day confetti before braking in time to avoid a sidewalk smackdown. Jones, in what amounts to a bit part to patch things together, continues his spate of loveable codger roles. But it’s Brolin’s movie, as he immerses himself so completely into the character traits of Agent K/Jones that there were countless moments when I caught myself believing I was watching Tommy Lee Jones, circa his early days on One Life to Live. But Brolin does more than just impersonate his mentor; he gives us a broader perspective on K’s character and evolution. It’s an unexpected treat in a fun, flip introduction to the summer movie season.