Men in Black - * * *

Men in Black

Aliens are all around us. Disguised as humans, they roam the earth simply trying to blend in. On those occasions when one is discovered, a top secret government agency is dispatched to take care of matters, and cover up the affair. They are the Men in Black, the subject of this humorous sci-fi comedy.

Will Smith stars as a street smart NY cop, who manages to track down a renegade alien, and attract the attention of Man in Black K (Tommy Lee Jones). K recruits Smith, who upon joining the agency, sheds all connections to the outside world and his previous identity (he becomes merely Agent J).

The Men in Black have been in existence for nearly forty years, ever since the first extraterrestrial encounter on Earth. Using borrowed alien technology, they keep tabs on all known aliens currently on Earth (including several celebrities). With a special device called a “neurolizer”, they are able to erase the memories of those having accidental close encounters, and are thus able to remain a mystery.

The primary plot involves Agents J and K tracking down a “bug”, an evil alien using the body of a boorish farmer, Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio), in an attempt to conquer the universe. Their hunt leads them across the path of civilian mortician Laurel Weaver (Linda Fiorentino), more than once, and she begins to get a clue that something fishy is going on.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld seems to have borrowed a page out of Tim Burton’s book. Not only does the film bear a Danny Elfman score, and the twisted world view common to many of Burton’s films, but D’Onofrio seems to be doing an uncanny Beetlejuice impersonation at times. It is difficult not to compare Men in Black to Burton’s recent sci-fi comedy Mars Attacks. Although Men in Black is more restrained than Mars Attacks, it is just as inventive.

However, to give Sonnenfeld credit, this is not merely a derivative work. He has shown his own quirky sense of humor in films such as The Addams Family, and a lot of that can be seen in Men in Black. There’s a lot of quick, almost throwaway humor, in the background of many scenes, and witty observations on the alien-ness of normal life abound.

Although the pairing of J and K is set up in the traditional way (the rookie and the veteran), the pair do not settle into the familiar routines. Jones and Smith, though funny, lack the rapaport that would have made them a classic pair. Will Smith gets his laughs from his attitude, and his everyman reactions to the hidden alien world revealed all around him. Tommy Lee Jones, however, gets the biggest laughs as the straight man. He delivers his lines with such deadpan seriousness in the most outlandish situations that it would make Joe Friday look like a slacker. Unfortunately, Jones is also saddled with the film’s weakest subplot, which is even less convincing than the undercover aliens, and disappointing compared with the inventiveness of the rest of the film.

There are no real slam-bang moments in Men in Black, but the humor is mostly solid throughout. The film never takes itself that seriously, but manages to deliver consistent, but never huge, laughs.

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