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"Men in Black"

by Richard Schwartz

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Tonka trucks cruising about the red planet, saucer buffs spouting fresh Roswell theories, "The X-Files" and "Star Wars" drawing record audiences.

If only there were a psychiatrist's couch large enough to accommodate all of the earth's population or at least a caustically perceptive satire to slap us awake from this unblinkingly frivolous celestial-minded giddiness and allow us to redirect our attention to the far more interesting (if less intelligent) life down here at sea level. "Men in Black" is neither overly caustic nor overtly satirical, but it actually seems to achieve at least part of that mission by depicting the paranoid rumblings of the alien conspiracy culture as one giant silly caricature.

That's not to say "Men in Black" set out to accomplish such in the first place. As the 1997 installment of the blockbuster du summer, "Men in Black" merely strives to elicit a few laughs out of the audience and perhaps a rise or two from the wonder-inducing work of veteran make-up whiz Rick Baker, whose latest specialty seems to be phlegm-spewing tentacles. At once downmarket and over-the-top, "Men in Black" is knee-deep in comic book goofiness and shallow in plot sophistication - at the very least, a refreshing change from a crowd of dour-faced Saganesque docudramas.

The premise is laid out fairly simply. Thousands of aliens inhabit earth, the story goes. In fact, most of them live in Manhattan - of course they're Manhattanites - disguised as humans. Thankfully, the screenwriters eschew the conventional plot device of providing some quasi-scientific justification for everything. On a broad level, that welcome reprieve allows the film to effectively stand as an outrageous lampoonery that draws attention to the silliness of the notion of government conspiracies. As a scripting choice, the omission leaves plenty of room for some potent gags including one particularly comic reveal that identifies a few well known aliens-in-disguise. Think Stallone, Gingrich, and Al Roker?

The title alludes to the top-secret super-governmental agency responsible for monitoring the intergalactic travels of these aliens and, ultimately, rescuing humanity every now and again. In this case, the "men in black" are Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, a pair of agents who must save the planet by stopping an evasive 20-foot bug disguised as a wife-beating redneck farmer (Vincent D'Onofrio) from upstate New York. Their boss is an omnipotent Rip Torn, essentially reprising his role as the hallowed sage from "Defending Your Life."

Even at its relatively brief running time, "Men in Black" reads like one lengthy comic strip vignette. That should come as little surprise given both its origin as a Marvel comic book and the track record of its director, Barry Sonnenfield, who lends the same air of animated silliness brought forth in previous efforts such as "Get Shorty."

The film suffers with its occasional over-reliance on special effects and costuming at the cost of straightforward comedy. Smith and Jones both have their individual moments, but the would-be dynamic chemistry between their two characters is never fully tapped, somewhat buried beneath the mass of exploding heads and glowing "neuralyser" guns. When it does work, however, "Men in Black" proves to be a briefly amusing joust at space-age conspiracy culture that pleases with a nice mixture of snappy dialogue and clever effects.

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