After decades of paranoid counterculture thrillers, in which the heroes routinely stumble on some secret government organization that runs roughshod over the Bill of Rights in the name of protecting our American way of life, it was a lark in Men in Black (1997) to be finally on the side of the hiply poker-faced fascists: men who put the highest priority on maintaining order while keeping their existence a secret, who make deals with aliens (in this case genuine extraterrestrials) while blanking the memories of ordinary citizens. The truth, as The X Files has it, might be “out there,” but it’s better for society if we don’t go looking for it.
Although the film, based on a comic book by Lowell Cunningham, pretended to lampoon all those ‘50s, J.-Edgar-Hoover-vetted FBI dramas, in which the super-competent agents wore identical suits and reveled in their own conformity, it delivered the same sort of pleasure—and in a way that, thanks to the miracle of irony, the ACLU couldn’t touch without looking like a bunch of killjoys. Men in Black was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld with a heavy, unvarying hand, but it felt naughty (in an authoritarian sort of way) and made a terrific platform for the smug, good-ol’-boy deadpan of Tommy Lee Jones, whose every line had the subtext: “Civil liberties? I don’t give a shit.” That his protégé (Will Smith) was an African-American—and one who jabbered incessantly about police surveillance—was the most disarming stroke: The Men in Black constituted a fascist rainbow coalition. And it was absolutely delightful.
With all the talk about trading civil liberties for security, the time would seem perfect to bring the Men in Black back for even more double-edged satire. But Men in Black II(Columbia) was hatched before 9/11 and doesn’t have a thing on its mind except more and bigger squiggly beasties. If it isn’t the worst sequel ever made, it’s only because it has too much competition: Impersonal and frenetic, it’s a landmark Hollywood disgrace. The premise is that Jones’ Agent K, who was “neuralized” (i.e., his memories were erased) at the end of the last movie, is the only one who knows the whereabouts of something called “the light,” for want of which an alien disguised as a dishy supermodel (Lara Flynn Boyle) is on the brink of destroying the Earth. So Agent J (Smith), who has yet to find a satisfactory new partner, must track down K, now an unassuming postmaster in Truro, Mass., deneuralize him, find the light, and return it to a distant galaxy. I can’t help but think that life in Truro is the better deal, whether one is neuralized or not.
Although the script (by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro) is broad and slapsticky and the sound effects plaster-cracking, there’s enough here for a top-flight kiddie movie: a lewd talking mutt called Mannix (with the voice of Brad Abrell); a posse of party-hearty, artillery-wielding earthworms; and a miniature civilization (complete with furry mayor and marching-band) out of Horton Hears a Who. Bo Welch (production designer) and Danny Elfman (composer) continue what Max Weber would call the bureaucratization of a charismatic leader—i.e., Tim Burton, who once upon a time encouraged each of them to push the boundaries. The movie would always have been derivative, but it could still have been a Burtonesque romp: Beetlejuice (1988) is the gold standard in anarchic, FX-laden comedies.
The mystery, kiddies, is what has happened to Sonnenfeld, a man of delicious wit and sophistication who has progressively unlearned everything he once knew about making movies. In Men in Black II, the former cinematographer (he got his start with Joel and Ethan Coen) puts everyone in the center of the frame and uses fish-eye lenses to shove them in our faces. The jokes go thunk!… thunk!…thunk! as if fired from a tennis-ball machine: You don’t want to laugh, you want to duck. And all the actors—save the computer-generated ones—are poorly lighted. They look as over-made-up as cadavers.
Tommy Lee Jones needed a good cinematographer. In real life a famously nasty character whose acidic temperament has often given him an electrifying edge, he now seems bleary and mechanical, and his fallen, pouchy visage is like Joe E. Brown’s death mask. He looks more at home in the Truro post office. That said, he’s easier to watch than Agent M, the tight, white-faced creature with a triangle nose who shows up to beg Zed (Rip Torn) to let him be a Man in Black. There’s rumor going around that this is Michael Jackson, but I pray that the animatronic guys are just having us on.
Adam Sandler was heartbreakingly silly in The Wedding Singer (1998), and word is he’s marvelous in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new romantic drama, which is due out in the fall. But he walks through the title role of Mr. Deeds (Columbia), the slovenly and contemptuous reworking of the folksy Frank Capra-Gary Cooper chestnut Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). As a New Hampshire rube who inherits $40 billion and a multimedia conglomerate, Sandler is supposed to be so in touch with his inner child—which translates as his inner purity—that he’s blessedly nonchalant about his new wealth. And in the course of the movie he brings out the inner child/purity in a host of other jaded types, from greedy stockholders to the tabloid producer (Winona Ryder) assigned by her boss to bring Deeds down. The weirdest stroke might be the casting of Ryder as a hard-drinking cynic pretending to be a doe-eyed Midwestern ingénue: Her private malfeasance notwithstanding, Ryder’s dazed, goody-good aura kills all her jokes. A trashy/funky type like Jennifer Lopez might have brought the house down.
Mr. Deeds, directed by Steven Brill from a script by Tim Herlihy, wasn’t doomed from the start: The idea of taking Capra’s pious fable and giving it a jolt of gonzo surrealism has promise. The Coen brothers tried something like that (laboriously, I thought, but with impish daring) in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), and the fish-out-of-water template has so much built-in appeal that it’s hard to go too wrong. But Brill and Herlihy (and Sandler, of course, who co-executive-produced) have retained the creakiest sentimental contrivances and added a few violent, gross-out set-pieces to keep the 12-year-olds chortling. This is another of those post-Saturday Night Live vehicles in which ineptitude and laziness are supposed to be taken as irony: It’s not bad, it’s “bad.” Actually, it’s “terrible”: Anyone who could script and direct the scene in which Sandler offhandedly saves an elderly black woman and her cats from a conflagration while the firemen in the street below applaud and cheer must have spent the last year in some remote galaxy. Call the Men in Black: There are cretinous aliens among us.
A more complex and tantalizing picture of the inner “purity” of children can be found in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (ThinkFilm), based on the novel by Chris Fuhrman. Peter Care’s movie (from a script by Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni) has its share of familiar coming-of-age motifs: These aren’t the first Catholic boys to smoke, drink, have sex, blaspheme in the presence of sacred icons, and razz the repressive nun (Jodie Foster, who co-produced) who seeks to tame their self-expression. But there is something deeply disquieting about the protagonists’ roiling mix of delinquency and creativity. The hero (Kieran Culkin) is a cartoonist who portrays himself and his friends as freakish, overmuscled superheroes continually beset by Nunzilla—a nun devil on wheels. Todd McFarlane’s animated sequences, which transport us into this fantasy world, are explosively liberating, but their real-life correlatives (which include toppling power lines and drugging cougars) are more difficult to sanction. The movie says that the rebellious spirit that generates art can also consume and destroy—that there’s no undangerous way to ride the tiger.