Cinema: It's an alien nation all right
Sunday 03 August 1997
Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black (PG), a wily, witty film that satirises our millennial angst about extra-terrestrials, takes the X-Files premise to a delightfully unheimlich extreme. Earth has not just been buzzed by the occasional flying saucer, here to examine the genitals of the odd Missouri hick - the planet is actually crawling with myriad galactic species, most living ordinary lives in human disguise. Your stepmother might indeed be an alien, but that's cool as long as her papers are in order. And it's the Men in Black, principally Agent Jay (Will Smith) and Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) who stamp their passports and make sure they're keeping within the terms of their residency permits.
This is the film's central conceit. Alien life, be it oleaginous, monocular, tripedal or cephalopod, is just trying to make a living like you and me. Unlike the monsters of Independence Day, these creatures don't get their jollies by vaporising national monuments. Unlike the Cybermen, they're not obsessed with marching on central London in parties of six. They don't even want to mine the Earth's magnetic core, steal the brains of our scientists, or kidnap our women. Most of them just want to run small businesses. Off-worlder Jack Jeebs (Tony Shalhoub) sells Rolex watches, with a nice little sideline in phasers. The Arquillian Prince (Mike Nussbaum) owns a jewellery shop and lives under the name of Rosenberg.
These aliens also have bad human habits: the "Worm Guy" creatures - actually much more like a cross between an otter and a slug - are hopelessly addicted to caffeine, and loll around on kitchen work surfaces swilling coffee. (Later, when the Earth is threatened with extermination by an enemy power, a bunch of them are seen skittering through Customs, loaded up with duty- free Marlboro, singing a derisive version of The Star-Spangled Banner.)
It's a galaxy away from Star Trek, on which each new race is handled with PC kid gloves. Like UN delegates, Starfleet officers are never allowed to register the Otherness of alien races (don't stare at their pseudopodia, don't decline that carafe of Regulan bloodworms). Men in Black has a much more quirky attitude to Otherness, and isn't afraid to build its deadpan jokes around the concept. The alien races on Star Trek largely confirm US prejudices about foreigners: the militaristic, unpredictable Klingons are plainly the Russians, the closed, totalitarian society of the Romulans stands in for China. But Men in Black's extra-terrestrials come from much closer to home. Basically, they're all New Yorkers with gills under their collars. Even the Arquillians, who love their pierogi and black tea, are clearly Brooklyn Russians rather than Muscovites.
The film, however, is not quite at ease with itself. To prove that it doesn't contain any allegories of US immigration policy, it opens with a scene of MiB operatives generously waving on a group of illegal Mexican border-hoppers. And the production design is a triumph of over-compensatory Kennedy-era optimism, with hemispherical chairs, Tardis roundels and gleaming Cape Canaveral control panels. It's as though Alien never happened.
Smith and Jones bring an attractive lightness of touch to Jay and Kay; but their agency retains a whiff of the sinister. Let's face it, what does the expression "men in black" mean to you? Undertakers? Valentine Dyall? Kristallnacht? Well, in an attempt to allay such suspicions, Ed Solomon's script has Jones explain that Earth, teeming with stateless extra-terrestrials, is like Casablanca. "Same thing but no Nazis," he quips, but it's a little difficult to take from the black-clad squadron leader of an organisation who are "Above the system, beyond it, over it." Conversely, the film's publicity material - featuring Mr Smith and Mr Jones wielding a monstrous pair of ray guns, and the slogan, "Protecting the Earth from the Scum of the Universe" seems to have fewer qualms about the glamour of ethnic cleansing. And I don't think I'm being paranoid.
Glance at the poster for Addicted to Love (15), and you see a sunny, Friendsy portrait of its four leads. Stare at it too long and you hallucinate a banana milkshake with four straws. Big, starry, holiday-release pictures are so obviously manufactured to produce predictable satisfactions that - as with oven chips - you never expect them to defeat your expectation. Happily, however, I can report that Addicted to Love is not a comfortable experience. It's a remake of Rear Window as romantic comedy.
Robert Gordon's screenplay has astronomer Sam (Matthew Broderick) spying on his ex-lover Linda (Kelly Preston) from a squat opposite the apartment where she's just shacked up with Anton (Tcheky Karyo), a successful French restaurateur. Not content with hovering behind the net curtains, Sam constructs a camera obscura that projects an image of events across the street upon the back wall of his hideout. He observes Linda's habits with professional diligence, monitoring the intensity of her smiles like fluctuations in a star's magnitude. This bizarre, HG Wellsian machine is central to the film, and an ingenious device: in one breathtaking moment, the lovesick Sam takes a roller and applies strokes of white paint to the filthy plaster. A massive, luminous image of Linda, smiling at someone else's joke, materialises like a picture in a magic painting book.
So far, so weird. But when Maggie (Meg Ryan) invades his rooms and reveals herself to be the jilted ex of Anton, the plot moves on to yet more perverse territory. Maggie is bent on wrecking the relationship opposite by the dirtiest means possible. And Gordon pushes the underlying twistedness of the scenario as far as he can within the mainstream romantic-comedy form: in one mortifying scene, Maggie bugs Linda and Anton's apartment and forces Sam to listen to the couple having sex. It really isn't funny. It's pure sadism and humiliation.
Sam and Maggie are so successfully destructive that they quickly shift from victim to tormentor status. The audience's sympathy defects to the pair under scrutiny. Although director Griffin Dunne does his best to calm his film's odd undercurrents, Gordon's script is too strange and nasty to lie down without a fight. This film is much more inventive than the daily papers would have you believe.
The performances of the two stars, however, are disappointing. Ryan, a dullish actor at the best of times, is functional and a little monotonous, and Broderick can't summon much subtlety. He hides under a beard to convince us he's not Ferris Beuller, but he still can't quite cut it as an adult star. Instead, the performance of the film comes from Tcheky Karyo, who brings dignity to a part that could easily have been absurd, and manages to maintain it even when his skin is peeling off and his entire upper body is encased in plaster.
Lastly, and very leastly, is Robert Townsend's BAPS (15), a morons-only comedy that somehow managed to get Ian Richardson and Martin Landau on its books. Its eponymous Black American Princesses (Halle Berry and Natalie Desselle) project as sophisticated an image of African America as did the catatonic porters and goggle-eyed housemaids of the 1930s, and the script is so thin and so horribly overplayed that its sporadic lurches into sentimentality are made genuinely repulsive. Townsend makes his cast look utterly foolish. For sophistication, stick with the Worm Guys.
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