Posted May 26, 2012 by D. K. Holm
Everyone talks about the influence of Tarantino on movies but few track the influence of the Coen Brothers. Granted, Tarantino’s mark on cinema was dramatic, especially in the 1990s when every week seemed to bring forth another talky crime comedy with quirky characters making pop references. But the Coens have also had a pervasive influences, if subtler.
That the Coens produced their own films independently affirmed or inspired the approaches of Soderbergh, Rodriguez, and Kevin Smith, among others. More deeply, Paul Thomas Anderson seems to show their influence, at least in Punch Drunk Love, and some critics have detected the Coen quality inThe Men Who Stare at Goats. Take Shelter may show traces of the Coens’s A Serious Man.
Men in Black III represents the latest example of the Coen influence. For one thing, it is directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. He did the first two MIBs but was also the Coens’ cinematographer for their first three films.1 In addition, the film stars both Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K and Josh Brolin as the younger version of K; both starred in No Country for Old Men. Michael Stuhlbarg was the lead in the Coens’s A Serious Man, and here he plays a crucial if smaller role. One scene takes place in a bowling alley right out of Lebowski, there is a scene in a diner, and there is a Lebowskian shop clerk. But as with all the Coen influenced films, the influence is modified and pureed into something warmer, more positive, and less torturous on the main characters.2
MIB3 is a time travel fish-out-of-water tale in which Will Smith’s J must go back to the past, July 15, 1969 to be exact, in order to stop an alien named Boris The Animal (Flight of the Conchord‘s Jemaine Clement) from killing K, thus erasing him from the present but also sparking an alien invasion which the earth won’t otherwise survive. Events culminate in a lengthy suspense-fight scene at the Apollo moon launch the next day, 16 July.3 In a nearly final scene, the viewer learns some crucial things about J’s character and the roots of K’s laconic personality.
Thrusting the characters back into the 1960s accomplishes another feat. MIB3 joins the ranks of other planned movies and of numerous television shows attempting to leap onto the coattails of the perceived fascination that the public have for all things sixties, thanks to Mad Men. MIB3‘s references to the ’60s are ultimately ephemeral, however, aside from cars and big things such as NASA and Andy Warhol. In any case, J and K already dressed as if they were from the ’60s (or a Tarantino movie).
The film is operatically big but there are only about seven to 10 scenes in the whole thing. Nevertheless, it is a very funny film and not at all as bad as some reviewers have claimed it to be. As often in both the Coens and most of Sonnenfeld’s earlier film, women are secondary: Emma Thompson is Agent O the head of the Men in Black division, and Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger plays Boris’ girlfriend and jail breaker. But the male performers make up for this deficit, at least Mr. Brolin does with an incredibly spot on impersonation of Jones, behind which Brolin fades into invisibility. He’s the best alien invasion in the film.
1. Their relationship seemed to deteriorate onMiller’s Crossing due to Mr. Sonnenfeld’s slowness and admittedly neurotic behavior, if outside accounts and various audio commentary tracks are to be trusted.
2. Weirdly, the script is credited to an “Etan Cohen,” but instead of a pseudonym used by the playful Coens he turns out to be a real guy, who also wrote Tropic Thunder. He has pix of himself on IMDB and everything. And anyway, Sonnenfeld has had his own media influence, in such things as the TV showPushing Daisies.
3. One reviewer complained that J and K.1’s exploits on the launch pad were implausible because with all the media there would have detected the activity. Can’t remember which writer this one was, though.