It’s a look that the parents of recalcitrant teenagers know all too well, that grimace that says, “You can make me go to this piano recital, but you can’t force me to look like I’m enjoying myself.” We get some version of that face quite a bit from Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in “Men in Black 3,” a sequel that seems to indicate that, a decade after their last onscreen outing, these two stars are strictly here for the paycheck.
Which is a pity, since there’s a zippy and clever movie going on all around the two lumps with their names above the title. Just like that piano recital, however, you’ll enjoy yourself more if you’re paying attention to what’s happening while ignoring the sourpuss in the corner.
As alien-managing Agent J (Smith) gripes that he never has any meaningful conversations with his partner Agent K (Jones), K’s old nemesis Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords”) escapes from a maximum-security prison on the moon. Back in the ’60s, K shot off Boris’ arm and foiled an invasion attempt by Boris’ fellow Boglodites, thereby dooming the warrior race to extinction.
Boris decides to remedy the situation by jumping back in time and killing K, and when that happens, J is the only one who notices K’s absence and acknowledges the rift in the time stream. With the Boglodites set to invade Earth in this altered present, J must jump back to 1969 himself to save the life of young K (Josh Brolin) and the world itself.
Time-travel conundrums can give you a migraine if you think about them too hard (if Boris successfully kills K in 1969, why do the Boglodites wait until 2012 to invade?), but the script by Etan Cohen (“Tropic Thunder,” “Idiocracy”) keeps things moving along briskly and doesn’t get too mired down in the details.
Moving the action to 1969 allows the film to play on several of its strengths, not the least of which is getting Jones off screen and replacing him with Brolin, who does a dead-on impersonation while also putting his own charming spin on the character. And since production designer Bo Welch’s gleaming Men in Black headquarters has been ripped off all over the place (seen a Progressive Insurance commercial lately?), the time jump gives him the chance to recreate everything from the Apollo moon launch to Andy Warhol’s legendary Factory.
The connection between the King of Pop Art and the Men in Black is one of the film’s best jokes, thanks in no small part to Bill Hader’s hilarious cameo as Warhol. Generally speaking, in fact, the supporting cast runs the show here, from Michael Stuhlbarg’s wide-eyed portrayal of an alien who can predict the parallel outcomes of multiple futures to Emma Thompson’s all-too-brief appearance as higher-up Agent O. (One of the film’s greatest visual effects is the bubble-flip wig sported by Alice Eve as young O in 1969.)
In addition to Welch’s slick and seductive art direction, we get more terrific aliens (of all shapes, sizes and dispositions) from the legendary Rick Baker, and the visual effects (supervised by Ken Ralston and Jay Redd) are dazzling but never overwhelming, particularly in the film’s crisp 3D, which feels immersive without being overly distracting.
It’s just too bad that Smith and Jones can’t be part of the fun. Smith tries to recapture his wisecrackery of yore, but it’s apparent that he’d rather be brooding his way through another “I Am Legend” or “Seven Pounds” instead. (Why not just replace him with “Saturday Night Live” star Jay Pharoah, who does a better Will Smith than Will Smith these days?) Jones, meanwhile, feels so distanced and distracted that it’s as though he’d filmed his entire performance in front of a green screen at a remote location.
We’re supposed to find it ironic, or something, when J tells K, “Man, I’m getting too old for this. I can only imagine how you feel.” Take the note, gentlemen. Or at least pretend like you’re enjoying the recital.