Can any one of the millions of Americans who saw Men in Black 2 in 2002 describe its plot today? A single scene? I saw both MIB movies upon their original release and have as little memory of the experience as if I'd been mind-wiped with one of those "neuralyzing" flash sticks that Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones use to give amnesia to witnesses of supernormal incidents.
The modern science of the franchise depends, though, on the public having a short memory, waiting for the moment when '02's "I paid $7 for that?" fades to indifference and then receptivity, if not nostalgia. Hence Men in Black 3, which reunites the series stars with director Barry Sonnenfeld, who, beginning with 1991's The Addams Family, made his fortune on special-effects comedies that could be synopsized and cross-promoted on the side of a 44-ounce fountain drink.
If you opt to rent the 3-D glasses, Men in Black 3 will be $14; the product has not, otherwise, changed significantly. Ten years later, Agent J (Smith) and Agent K (Jones) have retained their affable younger black guy/tight-assed older white guy repartee. While J is nagging the emotionally constipated K to be more forthcoming about his past, Boris "The Animal" (Jemaine Clement), an intergalactic hellion that K collared and crippled in 1969, is busy busting out of lunar prison. Boris is seeking not only revenge on K, but also a complete do-over of the intervening 40 years, during which his entire belligerent race was driven to extinction. Boris plans to effect this massive mulligan by traveling back in time to assassinate a young K. To prevent this, J has to preventatively travel to '69 himself, where he partners with a young K (Josh Brolin, not younger enough, but doing a fair TLJ impersonation) and hustles against time to hunt down Boris.
Is this the '80s or 2012? It's all quite Back to the Future, down to the involvement of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and a soundtrack theme song titled "Back in Time," with Miami rapper Pitbull replacing Huey Lewis and the News. The time-travel gimmick has at least the potential to be something more than a Hail Mary to save a tired property here, though, as there has always been a touch of retro-futurism about the MIB movies: Jones' starchy, old-school Joe Friday–like formality, the overtones of "Great Society" bureaucracy in the MIB Agency — gyroscopic motorcycles, the jet packs we were promised, primitive models of familiar MIB gear — even the first film's climax at the '64 World's Fair Unisphere, with all of its dated Tomorrowland implications. Practically none of that comes to play in the third MIB. The new-old '60s gadgetry is rendered in the familiar circa-1997 surgical-stainless-steel design template. As for the time-travel culture shock, you get a few hippies with speaking roles, and no significant engagement with the zeitgeist of the era. "It wasn't the best time for your people," J is warned as a black man traveling into the vicinity of the MLK assassination, but aside from a light-comic profiling scene, Martin Lawrence's Black Knight had about as much to say about race relations as MIB3 does.
In addition to saddling Boris with the limpest villain catchphrase in recorded history ("Let's agree to disagree"), the script by Etan Cohen and the inevitable small army of paid-by-the-one-liner punch-up men revisits the time-tested franchise gag in which public eccentrics (e.g., Dennis Rodman) are revealed to be hidden-in-plain-sight aliens. Here, it's Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) who's secretly an MIB agent; while in character, Hader's Warhol says things that Warhol would never conceivably say ("Now's not a good time.... This is a be-in.") and functions as a condescending stand-in for "freaky" '60s counterculture as a whole, dismissed with a smug emperor-has-no-clothes twist.
Despite such ubiquitous timidity, one can pluck out a few pleasing distractions here. Special-effects man Rick Baker, whose workshop was responsible for the previous MIB creatures, puts together a colorful bestiary in a Chinese-restaurant shoot-out, which also provides an opportunity for some good green-screen slapstick. The great Michael Stuhlbarg has a part as an extraterrestrial visitor who has the gift and curse of being, at any given moment, able to calculate the probability of every possible outcome of a situation, in every single butterfly-effect chain of events, leaving him a knot of elation and hypochondriac paranoia. Can even he conceive of a marketplace where the bland formula of MIB3 won't be rewarded? It's a long shot.