The internet’s favorite bete noire, the new Ghostbusters, is out this week, and having reviewed the original and not much caring to revisit the sequel, I decided to review the most successful copycat of a formula that largely died out around the turn of the century.
Lowell Cunningham’s The Men in Black, the graphic novel, was an autopsy; Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black, the film, is a ghoulish cemetery rave-up. Released amidst the hyper-violent deluge of the post-Moore left-wing anarchist, post-Miller right-wing manarchist comic world that society has never really recovered from, the crypto-cynicism of Cunningham’s comic was as much a satire of its fellow traveler comics as a pastiche of them. Cunningham’s work was more or less a brutal censure of government xenophobia with aliens explicitly serving as recast social “others” and foreign nationals. The oblong features and ostensibly grotesque forms of the aliens in the comic serve as a way to recollect the alienation social others feel in white company and the misplaced terror that largely white organizations see when glimpsing social outcasts, who they can barely recognize as conforming to a human shape in the first place.
Rather than stranding the material without the edge Lowell Cunningham brought to his state-of-the-union address in comic airs, this lighter touch of the film allows Sonnenfeld to flex the spirit of the material in a new direction. The very beginning of the film – a single renegade alien hiding in the body of a Mexican immigrant crossing the border – reignites Cunningham’s vision but drastically reorients the flow, proposing a more benevolent version of the secretive organization that reprimands the US border control for their buffoonery. The extraterrestrial hiding in the body of what the US considers an alien force is maybe a cheeky joke, at best, although it’s not quite brazen or cunning. Instead, it is a lightly stewing insouciance and carnivalesque amusement that largely evokes the spirit of a film that is much less recalcitrant or vituperative than Cunningham’s series progenitor, but which finds its own particular groove soon enough.
That doesn’t mean Sonnenfeld and writer Ed Solomon are on improper ground, but simply more stable ground than the icicle-and-hot-coal crucible Cunningham proposes. This version of the story (even “story” itself seems too meditated and normative for this gleefully anarchic live-action slip-and-slide) details the rough approximation of the same organization in the comic that monitors extraterrestrial life on earth. But the every-male nature of the organization’s blue-blooded members is nowhere to be found. The two focal points here are elite, old-school curmudgeon Agent K (a sublimely modulated Tommy Lee Jones, the straight-man in a film that is itself the madcap partner in this pas de deux) and the youthfully uninhibited J (Will Smith, in the first of his starring roles in a film that actually takes advantage of his galvanic charisma). While J confronts the terror that his previously known world was in reality much more limited than he could have conceived, he is put through his paces by the arrival of a bug-like alien who takes the corporeal form of a lovingly inebriated, convulsive Vincent D’Onofrio.
Where Men in Black strikes gold is reappropriating the hoary old “the universe is much more than you know” line for a film that textures “more” not as stolid exercise in pretense and philosophy but to liquefy and threaten our known reality with a glorious dose of cartoon physics and Bugs-and-Daffy uprooted reality. Smith’s presence is obviously a marker of a changing of the guard, a new-school jittery humanism and street-level know-how interrupting and invading a largely dictatorial, bylaw-ridden organization that retains Cunningham’s Orwellian nightmare aesthetics of hard black suits contrasting even harder white walls. In this film, though, Smith isn’t simply a ricocheting electron disrupting an unthreatened status quo. Instead, he is one more twitch in a largely spasmodic cocktail of cinematic bedlam; the world is chaos, and Smith is simply the crystallization of MIB realizing it needs a little of the world in itself to succeed.
Rather than signaling undying authoritarianism, the codified, straight-and-narrow design of MIB headquarters is now an ironic contrast to the slippery confusion of the world around them that refuses to conform to the need for order. As opposed to dogmatically iron-fisting order onto the populace, this version of the organization understands the importance of chaos and reacts in-kind; their various rules and regulations become putty in the films hands as their largely ineffectual attempts to retain their identity contrast with the need to adapt to a world that is too polyvalent for any one black-and-white aesthetic to contain.
Certainly, Men in Black strives for a lighter, less edgy approach than all of this might suggest, and in Sonnenfeld’s hands that tone is hard to argue with. The arguable headlining director of the last age of big budget sci-fi comedies erected after the instant success of Ghostbusters, Sonnenfeld’s early goings as a director were prefigured by his unheralded time as cinematographer for some of the Coen Brothers’ most elastic productions. Based on Men in Black, as well as his earlier Addams Family films (the second one being almost as divine in its unholiness as our current subject), it’s no secret that Sonnenfeld commandeered, at minimum, the warped Americana and gothic edge of Blood Simple, the spastic energy of Raising Arizona, and the presentational artifice and gallows humor of Miller’s Crossing.
Which sounds like a recipe for sure success to me, and if the blockbuster airs of Men in Black rein in and mollify the broken and tangential edges of those superior, less conformist films, then at least Men in Black is about as undiluted in its weirdness as a blockbuster could be in the modern world. It’s not cinema-redistricting entropy by any means, but Sonnenfeld and Solomon’s willingness to loosen up the consequence of the narrative and tinge it with the zesty elan of scene and sequence is delightful and warps the film from “summer blockbuster with a failed narrative” to “Marx Brothers comedy for which narrative is an object to be thrown around and stepped on”. A semi-satirical but genuine whisk of melancholy and longing for truth is a nice undercurrent, but Men in Black is primarily a charismatic, woolly knuckle-headed exercise in jazzy bebop and razzamatazz that gloriously extracts the sly, self-referential comic undercurrent of something like The X-Files.
It’s no riddle that the secret sauce is the two-fister of no-nonsense gruff and verbal elasticity on the part of Jones and Smith, but the film’s willingness to sit back and carve out room for them to riff is less an obsequious failure to move beyond its two stars than an acquiescence to their, and the film’s, mood of giddy escapism and shaggy-dog hanging out. Jones is best in show, with his inability to be fazed by anything around him being oddly touching, a bracing satirical edge that normalizes us to the abnormal and constructs a world where the only viable solution to imminent destruction is to just go with the flow. But the film is unimaginable without the partnership between the two men, a raffish team-up that is both a straight buddy film in which each partner effectively completes and betters the other and, more importantly, a delirious satire of the “crusty white guy” and “motor-mouthed black guy” routine popularized fifteen years earlier with Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs. Dousing the pairing in the absurd more or less invites us to consider how absurd the caricatured pairing is to begin with, and in a film that revels in light surrealism like this, the caricatured nature is just one more notch on the belt of the film’s simultaneous ode to and twisting of pop-fiction history.