**1/2 (out of four)
In movie time, how long has it been since 2002? So long that the vapid “Men in Black II” co-starred Lara Flynn Boyle.
Yet despite its reported $375 million budget, “Men in Black 3” arrives as a small movie in a blockbuster suit. Beneath the impressive alien effects and 3-D pointy stuff lives a story (from “Tropic Thunder” co-writer Etan Cohen) with enough emotional pull to rise above irrelevant, if south of necessary. When alien killer Boris (Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords”) travels back to 1969 to kill Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones in the present, Josh Brolin in the past) before K takes one of Boris’ arms, Agent J (Will Smith) time-jumps as well to save both his partner and, in effect, the entire planet.
“Men in Black 3” still lacks the edge of the franchise's first effort. It stretches for swagger instead of just owning it, particularly when J's so-called attitude includes pitiful phrases like “fish-slapped” and “You look like you came from the planet 'Damn!'” The movie keeps it all moving quickly and mostly painlessly thanks to a straightforward story—as long as you don't question the rules of the space-time continuum—and frequent bonuses on the fringes. Clement's got a dynamite evil laugh; Bill Hader reveals excellent new layers to Andy Warhol; Emma Thompson and Alice Eve charm as current and past versions of Agent O; Nicole Scherzinger flaunts all the va-va-voom the PG-13 rating will allow as a woman who visits Boris in prison; and Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”) brings laughs and heart as a being blessed/cursed with the power to see multiple possible futures at once.
So “MIB3” inspires mildly satisfied shrugs, aside from one large stumble: The film attempts basic racial commentary by noting to J that 1969 “wasn't the best time for your people” so he can teach bigoted cops a lesson. Except in the present day a little white girl sees J and thinks she sees the president, as if either she's never seen any other African-Americans before or she can't tell them apart. That ain't progress; that's comedy traveling backward.
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U