Blockbusters used to take us by surprise. Not anymore. The popularity of to-day’s summer-movie blitzkriegs is all but preordained by marketing onslaughts, media coverage, and advance word of mouth that effectively turns the audience into an extension of the advertainment-hype complex. When the picture itself arrives, it’s with all the spontaneity of a national holiday. Yet it isn’t just publicity overkill that makes movies like Independence Day, The Lost World, or this year’s July 4 supernova, Men in Black, into ready-made insta-Events. The films themselves are as reassuringly digestible — and forgettable — as fast food.

Men in Black is a comedy of facetiousness in which facetiousness consumes everything in its path — including the movie. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty), who never met a scene he couldn’t turn into a goof, the film features the appealing team of Tommy Lee Jones (stoic straight guy) and Will Smith (stoic punchline machine) as top secret federal agents whose job is to monitor the 1,500 extraterrestrials who wander in disguise among us, and to erase any human memory of those creatures, a task they accomplish with a flashing light stick known as a ”neuralizer.” The idea that aliens are alive and well and living in Cleveland obviously has a lot going for it. The joke of Men in Black is that aliens have arrived, and they’re not monsters…they’re pests. In its throwaway absurdity, the picture mirrors the ironic nonchalance of ’90s America, a place that feels — or at least wants to feel — that it has neutered most of its enemies.

In the desert night, a rubbery beastie with tubular limbs stands holding its disguise (a pole with a head on it), and Jones, the image of unflappable cool, stares at this startling vision and says, ”Put up your arms, and all your flippers!” If that’s your idea of wit, you’ll love Men in Black. Some of the extraterrestrials are goofy, and some are nasty, like the big bug that eats redneck Vincent D’Onofrio, turning him into a crazed — and rotty-skinned — zombie. But most of the aliens are outsize comic-book jokes, like the one that grabs Smith in its giant tentacle or the croaky gremlins who sit around a secret federal lab smoking and drinking coffee.

A spoofy sci-fi grab bag, Men in Black combines the anthropomorphic kiddie ghoulishness of the Star Wars bar scene with the blase showbiz hipsterism of Ghostbusters. This is a movie in which the heroes defeat their foes using a variety of complicated silvery guns, but mostly by employing their nothing-fazes-me cheekiness to render the situations in which they find themselves harmless. It’s no surprise that Smith gets most of the good lines, or that he zings them with his inimitably suave popcorn-homeboy timing. Smith’s sexiness makes him likable rather than dangerous — it says, ”I look so good, I don’t even have to be this funny!” Most of his rejoinders, though, don’t have much to do with the movie’s premise (he’s at his best dismissing a hick’s sorry decor with a definitive ”Damn!”), and after a while the nonstop blitheness begins to make everything seem strangely inconsequential.

The lightweight high jinks of Men in Black are linked to the signature moment of Independence Day, in which Smith decked an alien as if he were hitting a plastic punching doll. (You’d think he would have halted for at least a moment in fear or surprise.) Men in Black celebrates the triumph of attitude over everything else — plausibility, passion, any sense that what we’re watching actually matters. The aliens, for all their slimy visual zest, aren’t particularly scary or funny (they aren’t allowed to become characters), and so the joke of watching Smith and Jones crack wise in their faces quickly wears thin. Then again, what can you say about a movie in which a product placement — for Ray-Bans — defines its heroes as well as anything in the script? For all its oddball felicities, Men in Black is as hollow as Styrofoam. Every time the film makes you chuckle, you may also feel it’s zapped you with a neuralizer. C+

Men in Black
  • Movie
  • 98 minutes