Josh Brolin and Will Smith in Men in Black 3MEN IN BLACK 3

Is it merely deserved absence making my heart grow fonder, or is Men in Black 3, against almost all expectation, awfully damned good?

Like most of you, I'm guessing, I don't remember a thing about 2002's Men in Black II - the follow-up to 1997's original, modestly witty sci-fi comedy - beyond its feeling like a crushing waste of time and talent. (Did that adorably dyspeptic talking pooch die in the film? Considering that, in this latest MIB, Will Smith's apartment boasts an enormous portrait of the pug, I presume he did.) But I'm also guessing that if you ask me, 10 years from now, what I remember about Men in Black 3, I'll have no trouble recounting more than a dozen of its more notable inspirations - not least of which being Josh Brolin's beautiful, hysterical channeling of co-star Tommy Lee Jones. Disregarding all conventional wisdom about second sequels generally sucking, series director Barry Sonnenfeld has crafted a breezy, terrifically confident outing that's not only an improvement on its predecessor, but on that movie's predecessor; it's an imaginative and surprisingly touching example of the magic that can result when a team of gifted professionals consciously decide not to muck things up.

The central storyline finds Smith's galaxy protector Agent J time-traveling to 1969 to prevent the murder of partner Agent K by a one-armed alien thug hell-bent on revenge. With Brolin and Jones cast as Ks past and present, and Flight of the Conchords' Jermaine Clement cast as the thug, I'm not sure we'd need more than that. Yet one of the many joys of Etan Cohen's bright and nimble screenplay is that it gives us so much more.

You would expect the filmmakers to get a lot of mileage out of their spirit-of-the-'60s gags, and they do; Smith's comedic incredulity at, and responses to, the period's casual racism are especially satisfying, and in a priceless bit, Bill Hader pops up for a wicked Andy Warhol send-up. (Addressing an unwanted guest at his door, Hader's pop artist sighs, with divine ennui, "I'm watching a man eat a hamburger. It's transcendent.") But there's almost no end to Men in Black 3's good ideas: the memorial tribute to Rip Torn's departed (and much-missed) Zed, with Emma Thompson offering a moving testimony in squawking alien gibberish; Clement's Boris the Animal encountering his own 1969 likeness and chastising the double for his stupidity; the presence of the wool-cap-wearing higher intelligence Griffin (a fabulously funny and endearing Michael Stuhlbarg), who foresees humankind's every possible future and hopes, with a shrug and a sweet smile, that we don't wind up in the wrong one. For the entirety of the movie's speedy 100 minutes, the invention rarely wanes, and even the scenes that feel de rigueur feature details to make you giggle; while the opening shootout in what must be Manhattan's diciest sushi bar feels a tad old hat, the fish themselves - and the oversize fish head seen lamenting its fate on the stove - prove fantastically fresh.

With the sharply honed banter between Smith and the fabulously stone-faced Jones more welcome for our having been deprived of it for so long, and Rick Baker's ingenious monster makeup gloriously old-school, Men in Black 3 is an exceptional, consistently engaging argument for a mandatory 10-year-wait between franchise installments. And with the arrival of Brolin, whose eerily perfect, utterly riotous approximation of Jones' readings and expressions transcends mere mimicry, the movie practically begs for a parallel-universe franchise in which he and a younger version of J tackle the aliens responsible for Watergate and the late-'70s gas shortage. Unfortunately, though, a 10-year wait would probably be mandatory for that one, too. How old is Jaden Smith, anyway?


Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy in The Best Exotic Marigold HotelTHE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL

In director John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a septet of British retirees, most of them without sufficient financial means, travel to India to reside in an upscale retirement home that turns out to be far less posh than the one they were promised, and the movie is a bit on the broad and obvious side. Yet try as I might, and with the possible exception of my screening of The Avengers, I can't recall the last time I sat amongst a cineplex audience that was so fully alert to the proceedings. The nearly sold-out, mostly senior crowd laughed (and laughed hard), they sniffled, they applauded at the end - it was like Avatar for the Boomer generation. And while I can't say I enjoyed the experience quite as much as my happy neighbors, it would be impossible to deny the infectious pleasure generated in that auditorium, and by the movie itself, which sort of resembles a super-sized Golden Girls episode enacted by the cast of Downton Abbey.

Sad to say, Betty White doesn't make an appearance, but we are treated to two of Abbey's performers, with Penelope Wilton as a long-married nag miserable with her new living conditions, and the peerless Maggie Smith as another in her collection of wonderfully acerbic, condescending vipers (with a secretly gooey center). Bill Nighy, who was Wilton's husband in Shaun of the Dead, performs the same duties here, his faithful spouse too browbeaten to admit his unhappiness. Tom Wilkinson portrays a kindly, hopeful gay man seeking a lost love; Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup are a pair of libidinous sixtysomethings seeking autumn-years passion. Judi Dench plays ringleader to the crew. And if you find yourself occasionally underwhelmed by the film's somewhat formulaic presentation and wheezy jokes and tiresome plot devices (with co-star Dev Patel's lame attempts at slapstick mugging seriously tiresome), the seven leading actors assembled for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel make your complaints positively moot, filling their serviceable-at-best roles with warmth, depth, and intelligence to spare. The best shot in the movie is a relatively early one, and a marvelously simple one, in which the hotel's residents-to-be sit next to one another in an airport terminal, and the camera's slow, lovely backward glide suggests that Madden is letting his company take a preemptive curtain call. They absolutely deserve one.

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