It’s the old Law of Diminishing Returns with a vengeance — sequelitis in its most extreme form. It’s not so much that Barry Sonnenfeld’s extension of his 1997 hit (delayed these many years whilst Messrs. Jones and Smith hammered out the most lucrative possible deals for themselves) is bad. It’s something worse than bad: It’s perfunctory. It aims so low that it’s hard not to want to contact Sonnenfeld and remind him of Zora Neale Hurston’s mother’s advice to her daughter — “Shoot for the moon, and you’ll at least hit the stars.” Sonnenfeld didn’t shoot for the moon, and he didn’t hit the stars. He shot for the safety net of repetition and he hit the tragically ordinary. The original film wasn’t really all that great, but it was at least clever and had the ability to appear fresh. Men in Black II is rarely clever and, apart from the talking pug named Frank singing “I Will Survive,” it’s the very antithesis of fresh. It’s a strictly High Concept piece of filmmaking designed to appeal to the faithful, on the strength of the idea that the recipe for success consists of nothing more than repeating all the gags from the first film with as little deviation as possible. It’s so completely by-the-numbers that it’s less like seeing a sequel than it’s like seeing a dumbed-down rough sketch for the original film before all the savviness and wit had been added. A barometer of what’s wrong with the film lies in the fact that nearly everything that’s funny in it you already saw in the trailer. Even at a brisk 88 minutes, a movie is doing something very wrong when it can pull out all its best material and include it in two and a half minutes of screen time. That still leaves 85 minutes to fill with something — and a not very distinguished something is all that MIB II delivers. The story this round has the world being threatened by the evil Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) — but not really, you see, because what she’s after is something that will destroy Earth if left here. So exactly why the Men in Black just don’t let her take the damned thing away is — like so many things in the movie — not exactly well thought out. That isn’t too surprising, since MIB II’s notion of wit is to have Serleena decide on her appearance based on a Victoria’s Secret catalogue (“See? We can satirize the whole hubba-hubba, scantily-clad female thing while pandering to it at the same time!”). And it’s quickly obvious that no one involved cared about the story, so long as it put Smith and Jones back into action against cleverly designed aliens and big special effects. When the story begins, Agent Jay (Smith) has to re-recruit Agent Kay (Jones) back into their ranks. Kay has had his memory of his MIB days wiped and is spending his days teaching people how to wrap packages as postmaster in a small Massachusetts town. The side-splitting notion here is that most postal employees are aliens, and that’s why Kay feels at home in the post office. (I’m more inclined to subscribe to the theory that it’s the DMV that’s populated by aliens, but that’s another matter.) And therein lies part of the movie’s problem: It’s all designed as if this still was 1997. Postal jokes were all the rage then. They seem about as dated as knock-knock jokes now. The next chunk of the movie details getting Kay’s memory back. Some of this is mildly funny, so long as you don’t try to unravel the intricacies of the process of deneuralization (and since the writers didn’t bother, there’s no reason you should). There’s a thoroughly uninteresting romantic subplot involving Smith and Rosario Dawson — a pairing that makes the teaming of Ben Chaplin and Nicole Kidman in Birthday Girl look positively inspired — and a “dramatic” climax you can see coming from about the two-third mark. Worst of all, though, is the simple fact that everyone and everything seems to be on auto-pilot. There’s just no sense of trying. It’s all solidly mounted, but indifferent. What has happened to Barry Sonnenfeld? He learned his craft photographing films for the Coen Brothers. His own directorial debut, The Addams Family (still, his best film), was nothing if not stylish. MIB II is anything but stylish. Even the much-maligned Big Trouble was far more interestingly made than this — and, frankly, a better movie, too. My advice: Go see Lilo and Stitch again, and wait for this one on cable.
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