Stranger Danger

In the wacked-out Men in Black, subtlety is an alien concept

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 in regard to the cops is a cop-out and typical of the film's pussyfooting around race. 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, cockroachlike creature who has taken over the body of a farmer 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 are the ones in which the filmmakers allow you to catch their comic zigzags on the sly. In 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 Hieronymous Bosch the willies--and too many of them pour on the frights regardless of how tonally 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 the gloppy gross-outs 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 a nightmarish freakout. And yet this is supposed to be a comedy. (You wouldn't want to take young children to see this film.)

What's being lost here is the simplicity that is possible in the realm of imaginative effects. You don't need megamillions 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
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld; with Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rip Torn and Linda Fiorentino.


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