Men in Black (1997) dir. Barry Sonnenfeld


Here’s an idea: Go watch Men in Black (1997).

No, seriously. Go watch Men in Black again.

Let’s set the scene:

I’m hungover in the woods after just getting back from France (I took this chance to stay in a small cabin in Maine to somehow Walden my way out of jetlag). It’s something like 8AM and I’m watching whatever crappy cable is running through this place on a small tube TV with nothing to satiate my dehydration except day-old pizza crammed into too-small ziploc bags.

I digress.

After about 40 minutes of wondering if Dave Chapelle was really in Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor (spoiler alert: he is), Men in Black rolled around to remind me that it had been roughly 10 years since I had given Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones’ classic any form of a rewatch.

And I have to say… It absolutely holds up.

From the beautiful bookends of a weary special agent turning in his memory to the wonderfully weird acting of Vincent D’Onofrio’s cockroach villain, it’s a unique trip into the logistics of a sci-fi world complete aliens, mind wipes, and little green men inside of bigger, fleshier men.

This comes as an even bigger surprise considering director Barry Sonnenfeld’s previous works. There’s no doubt that his direction on The Addams Family (1991) and Addams Family Values (1993) proved his ability to balance absurdity with themes of family and togetherness but it nevertheless came as a surprise that he could do so within a concept so fundamentally accented by outlandish characters and devices. Then again, this is less of a surprise than his experience in the soft-core porn genre.

Men in Black is a fun ride with a lot of heart. I had a great time giving this film the time it deserved, enjoying the redemption story of Will Smith’s character, someone so troubled by the law that he inevitably outranks the cops that hate him. Hell, I even enjoyed the half-scary, half-bored look of Tommy Lee Jones as I realized that this is just who Special Agent Kay is and, even moreso, that this film nails his journey through the buddy cop genre.

You see, Kay isn’t someone amused by Jay, nor is he someone who eventually gives into the action genre with quippy one-liners and comedic straight-man deliveries. He’s someone we can relate to – someone Jay can relate to – in a way that strikes at our weariness with the world and the changes we face. We can’t all be superbly emotional personalities with endless streams of energy. Sometimes we seem dry and that’s okay.

Men in Black is genius in the sense that it tells the story of Jay and Kay coming to understand one another and realizing that they each possess their own personal energy with boundaries and limits.

It’s not like this super progressive look at masculine relationships but it is a good model for friendships and understanding why someone so on can be completely compatible with the off tendencies of Tommy Lee Jones (except when he’s playing Two Face).

This all culminates in the final scene between Kay and Jay, an emotional farewell that sees our heroes departing indefinitely (until Men in Black 2). After watching an hour and a half of aliens, cockroaches, and Will Smith, I was hardly expecting anything so gut-wrenching as Kay’s goodbye to Jay and something so tragic as the mind wipe being used as a way of setting him free from being a special agent.

It’s a ballsy play – one that probably struck a deep chord in some audiences back in 1997 as this film tried to defy sequel syndrome (at least somewhat) initially.

I mean, imagine how incredible that ending/farewell would have been if it was left alone?

(Then again we wouldn’t have Josh Brolin’s incredible performance from the third Men in Black film.)

Regardless, you have to watch this movie again. It’s too unique, too funny, too weird not to.

Oh, and did I mention it’s 20 years old?

Give Men in Black some light this week and be sure to look over its deeper themes and the ways in which this story stands as one of the best and most unique buddy cop pictures in existence.

Men in Black
dir. Barry Sonnenfeld
98 min.

Screens Thursday 6/15, 7PM @Coolidge Corner
Part of the Ongoing Series: Rewind!

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