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The Outer Limits

The special effects in the sci-fi comedy Men in Black are an orgy of animatronics, mechanical effects, practical effects, miniatures, computer enhancements, makeup--the whole shebang. The film's mishmash of tones, from goofball to horrific, is equally all over the map. The trailer for the movie promised a great big Ghostbusters-style spoof, but it's not really that rollicking; it's too grungy and sinister for that. Men in Black has its cartoonish side, but it also has its Aliens side--and just about every other side, too. Like so many big special-effects thrillers right now, it occupies audiences by throwing everything at them.

It used to be a boon when a movie offered "something for everyone," but the current commercial thinking of the studios has perverted that ideal. Too often, "something for everyone" means a glop of pre-tested bits calculated to connect with the widest possible audience without regard to the logic of plot, story or emotion. It's a way of giving the audience its money's worth while picking its pocket.

To its credit, I suppose, Men in Black is a far better pickpocket than any of its throw-everything-at-you summer blockbuster rivals--although being best of breed with the likes of Speed 2, Con Air, Batman & Robin and The Lost World is no prize. It's the best of them because at least its knuckleballs and boomerangs have some velocity. But mostly what keeps you hooked in Men in Black is the knockabout premise plus the odd-couple pairing of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as, respectively, Division 6 agents K and J--undercover detectives for an "unofficial" government agency devoted to keeping tabs on the 1,500 or so aliens in our midst, most of whom, naturally, reside in New York City.

The film--which was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, scripted by Ed Solomon and loosely derived from The Men in Black comic books by Lowell Cunningham--is keyed to an oddly reassuring idea. You know those people in your life who are just too strange or annoying to be human? It turns out they probably aren't. They're aliens in human camouflage. (That certainly clears things up for a lot of us.)

The notion of Men in Black didn't begin with the comic books. It's been a prime campfire tale among UFO-ologists since the '50s, when numerous alien-encounter eyewitnesses claimed to have been visited by two blank-faced, dark-suited men--feds? Martians? Jack Webb clones?--who scared them, at least for a time, into silence. (Subsequently, shows such as The X-Files and NBC's Dark Skies also have popularized the Men, as did the Frank Black song of the same name.)

In the Cold War '50s, a movie like Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers played up the paranoia of not really knowing who your friends are. Anybody could turn out to be a pod. Men in Black, though set in the present, works off the Kennedy-esque '60s, when NASA space exploration was promoted as rah-rah uplift as we shot our wad into the universe. The Men in Black are '60s throwbacks. They dress in black suits with white shirts, narrow ties and matching Ray-Bans. They drive a black Ford LTD with turbo engines.

Their top-secret agency, begun in the '60s, still looks like it's stuck there--its inner sanctum in New York City, presided over by the imperious, unflappable Zed (Rip Torn), has a corporate '60s functional modishness, like the TWA terminal at New York's JFK airport. It's the port of entry for the wayward of the universe--an Ellis Island for space aliens. In one of the film's nuttiest sequences, we see the aliens lining up for entry and disembarkation, and the concatenation of snouts and tentacles and bulbous bellies and gelatinous maws is the damnedest thing since the cantina sequence in Star Wars.

We've seen so many black-white cop buddies in the movies that the teaming of agents K and J is always on the verge of being generic. But there's nothing generic about Jones and Smith (except, come to think of it, their last names). Jones is a great choice for K because, in roles ranging from Eyes of Laura Mars to Cobb, it often seems he could be an alien himself; his wary deep-set eyes and knobby, punched-out features seem ready to mutate into something gloppy. In casting Jones as an alien-buster, the filmmakers appear to be playing a game of set-a-thief-to-catch-a-thief. Jones's K knows how to snag spacemen because, with the vibes he sends out, he could be a species of spaceman himself.

Next to Jones, Smith is all sweetness and light. His jive normality has been used as a foil before in the sci-fi realm--in Independence Day, where he got down to business by punching out an alien with a hard sock to the head. Smith's J is supposed to be our golly-gee surrogate in Men in Black, but, unlike most audience surrogates, he isn't some passive observer. He's psyched to root out aliens, and he clamors for the high-tech hardware K proffers, especially a penlight neutralizer that zaps the memories of humans who have witnessed alien stuff.

Smith and Jones clearly enjoy working with each other, and that's a plus, since their byplay and banter don't really do them justice. Jones's K is a deadpan G-man who isn't the least bit stunned when a human morphs into a freakazoid; he takes a lawman's professional pride in running surveillance on the aliens. Smith's J allows himself to be recruited from the New York police into the fold--even if it means dropping all conventional human contacts--because he's geared up to be an elite. What's the NYPD compared with the ultimate police force?

You would expect these two to "grow" a bit in the course of the movie. But K is pretty much a straight-faced alien-buster throughout, and J remains his wide-eyed rookie. The filmmakers can't think of what to do with them except play out again and again their obvious temperamental differences, and so, conceptually at least, the pairing isn't on a much higher level than the Danny Glover-Mel Gibson stuff in the Lethal Weapon movies, which also played its groove into the ground. The black-white cop combo doesn't come to much in Men in Black, as if racial humor was supposed to be out of bounds in a film like this.

There's a particularly good racial joke that's never developed: J is riding high in the retro-'60s law enforcement culture that is famously lily-white. There should be a sweet payback in his triumph, but the filmmakers don't want to recognize it. Their deliberate colorblindness with regard to the cops is a copout and typical of the film's pussyfooting. There's nothing in this movie that will faze teens.

New Yorkers probably will be unfazed too. Manhattan is infested with aliens? So what else is new? The comic horror of the city has finally found its metaphor. But there's no malice in the film's disclosure about aliens-in-hiding; it comes across instead as a valentine to Manhattan grunge. The filmmakers aren't playing up the soullessness of city life; they're celebrating its crazy-making, anything-can-happen fizz.

Thankfully, you'll find no sentimentality for the simple rural life in Men in Black. This is a city-slicker comedy. It's no accident that the worst of the aliens--the one who is attempting to bring doom upon the Earth--is an immense cockroach-like creature who has taken over the body of a yokel named Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio). With his rotting skin and cadaverous pallor, Edgar is a hayseed ghoul--he's his own compost heap.

The best moments in Men in Black are the ones in which the filmmakers allow you to catch their comic zigzags on the sly. In what is perhaps the film's best scene, K and J stop a car on a rural road, and it turns out the pregnant woman inside is really an alien about to give birth. As K grills the hubby outside the car, J looks in on the birth, and all we see, from a distance, is a giant tentacle flinging him about and bouncing him off the roof. Sonnenfeld showed a gift for malarkey in the Addams Family movies, and he keeps coming up with wiggy visual jokes here, like the chase on foot between J and an alien inside the sci-fi whorls of the Guggenheim Museum.

But there's also a harrowing ferocity to the alien effects that I think is a mistake. Sonnenfeld doesn't appear to recognize how horrific parts of this movie are or how discordantly that horror clangs with his deft tomfoolery. Filmmakers now have available to them a special-effects arsenal sophisticated enough to give even Hieronymus Bosch the willies--and too many of them pour on the frights regardless of how totally inappropriate those effects are for the movie. The filmmakers get carried away by their ability to up the gross-out ante.

Perhaps they think audiences won't sit still for anything less. But there's no reason why the gloppy grossouts in Men in Black have to be so frightening, except that Sonnenfeld and his alien-makeup expert, Rick Baker, and the other visual-effects artists probably couldn't resist going all the way. And so we see K squirming his way into the belly of the cockroach alien and then being spewed out. The way it's been designed and shot, the sequence comes across not as a sick joke but as an Aliens special, a nightmarish freakout. And yet this is supposed to be a comedy. (You wouldn't want to take young children to see this film.)

Is it too much to ask for filmmakers to show some restraint? What's being lost here is the simplicity that is possible in the realm of imaginative effects. You don't need mega-millions in hardware and computer enhancements to get a response from audiences. The biggest scream in The Lost World--and I actually saw it twice--came not when the T. rexes are pouncing but when a tiny coral snake slips down the shirt of an explorer. That should tell you something. And the biggest giggle in Men in Black comes when K is furiously shaking up an alien shaped like a tiny pug dog. The filmmakers responsible for many of the big new blockbusters appear to be on a crusade to show us how tough they are, even when they are trying to make us laugh. It's the wrong crusade.

Men in Black.
Written by Ed Solomon, based on the Malibu Comic The Men in Black by Lowell Cunningham. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. With Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Tony Shalhoub, Rip Torn, Vincent D'Onofrio and Linda Fiorentino.

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