It takes a lot to make a pug unfunny. With a squashed face, bulgy eyes and oddly dainty legs, a pug is a natural comedian -- especially if he is the pug from the first Men in Black movie. MIB fans may remember him as Frank, the gravelly-voiced, smart-mouth alien masquerading as a dog. In the first movie, he was a brilliant little side joke, a throwaway gag. In the second, he makes an extended appearance -- but in this case, more is not better. In lieu of showcasing new material or a coherent plot, the creators of MIB have decided to trot out old jokes like Frank over and over again until even he, chock full of charm, wears out his welcome.
Will Smith is also back as Agent J, a member of the top-secret Men in Black, who "police and monitor alien activity on Earth." This time around, a new evil alien has arrived to carry out a nefarious plan. No one can stop her except J's old partner, K (Tommy Lee Jones), who was the most efficient, expert agent around. Trouble is, K was "neuralyzed" at the end of the last movie, which means he was flashed with a special MIB device that makes people conveniently blank out previous events. (For those of us who have been naturally neuralyzed by age and time, it might have helped if the movie had reminded us why this happened.) As a result, K completely forgot his secret-agent identity and went happily to seed in the regular world.
As MIIB begins, J goes in search of K, and finds him exercising the same brand of ruthless discipline as before -- but at his new job at the post office. Predictable twists and turns ensue, as do the requisite summer blockbuster special effects. But like Agent K and his zapped memory, the movie seems to have completely forgotten its previous incarnation as a delightful comedic trifle packed with good sight gags.
I had high hopes for MIIB, not least because director Barry Sonnenfeld cast Lara Flynn Boyle as an evil alien queen named Serleena. That name, with its suggestive combination of the words "sir," "surly" and "lean," wonderfully recalls Boyle's hard-nosed, bitchy and exceedingly skinny role as a vicious David E. Kelley lawyerette on ABC's The Practice. As District Attorney Helen Gamble, Boyle is always tricked out in a natty little suit, her hair smacked down flat to accentuate her ant-head and cold eyes. I couldn't wait to see her wreak havoc as a full-on villainness in a latex outfit. Sadly, Boyle took second place to the computer graphics. Instead of chewing scenery and glowering, she just grew tentacles and ate people indiscriminately. Or licked them. MIIB is the kind of movie where characters signify that they are evil by raunchily running their tongues over their victims' faces.
The first MIB had a witty conceit at its heart: There are aliens among us, everywhere, especially in New York. All the humans you've always thought were strange weren't really human at all; take Dennis Rodman and Newt Gingrich, for example. This droll idea -- a nice send-up of our culture's UFO fixation -- provided the momentum for the movie, which made big summer blockbuster bucks with its combination of star power and sly visual humor.
Unfortunately, MIIB has little of the first's fizzy charm. Granted, I'm being a little hard on it, mainly because I remember being so amused by the original. I had hoped the team that made that movie would be able to follow the rules of making a good comic sequel, which include either a) providing an amusing and previously unknown back story for already familiar characters or b) placing old favorites in entirely new, and hopefully hilarious, situations. MIIB does neither, and without the germ of an ingenious new idea -- something along the lines of "humans themselves are really aliens, who were secretly transported to this planet and then all neuralyzed" -- it meanders aimlessly.
Still, there are a few nice touches, including an affectionate shout-out to paranoid sci-fi super nerds and an extended riff on contrary, crazy New Yorkers (the ones who aren't even aliens). The always affable, jug-eared Will Smith bounces nicely off the deadpan delivery of Tommy Lee Jones. And there are a few funny cameos (such-and-such frightening, freakish celebrity is really an alien? So that explains it!). But the movie seems strangely mechanical, a loose collection of could-be-funny ideas that don't quite fit together.
The creators should have heeded the actions of one of their own aliens. At the beginning of the movie, a voracious alien is mugged in Central Park, but turns around and eats the attacker. However, when the alien sees how her impromptu meal distends her belly -- like that of a sumo wrestler -- she coughs it right back up. The creators of MIIB should have imitated her, and hacked up all that old stuff from the first movie for something with a bit more bite. Then they might created a film with more shape and less sprawl instead of what they wound up with: A fluffy movie that neuralyzes itself right out of your memory as soon as you leave the theater.