"Somethin' that ain't got nothin' to do with nothin," says Will Smith at one point during the new adventure of those guys in the suits who manage the universe's alien traffic flow. And to what "nothin'" is he referring? Nothin' really, and it doesn't matter anyway, because what he's unexpectedly describing is this entire film. It is, in fact, about nothing.
Don't misread that. Nothing can be the multiplex's highest achievement when properly constructed. And summer is the best time of year for the movie about Nothing. It doesn't even matter what the motivation is, which is good because that motivation is usually a studio desire for cash in the hundreds of millions ballpark. Of course, you have to aim for Nothing in just the right way. Battleship was about nothing, and a pretty entertaining Nothing, for the record. But it sank, at least in American waters. It was, maybe, too much Nothing. Too proud of its own stupidity? Too convinced of its Taylor Kitsch-appeal? We'll never know. Nothing is tricky.
Will Smith, he's pretty good at Nothing by this point. He knows when to turn it on and off, and he's got it turned on about halfway here, not fully committed to much more than the get-paid angle of Nothing. And Tommy Lee Jones? He's barely in the movie at all. Josh Brolin, on the other hand, is going full-tilt Nothing, so fully and satisfyingly immersed in his role as young Tommy Lee Jones (time travel, see) that he threatens to make it Something.
There's a story, sort of: J (Smith) wonders why K (Jones) is so boring and expressionless, why they never talk about anything but work. He wonders what K's relationship with O (Emma Thompson) held in the past . Also there's a bad alien (Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement) trying to destroy the world, so heading back to 1969 is the only way to get answers and set the balance right. That means we get cool furniture, the Moon launch, Andy Warhol (Bill Hader, just right) and a future-seeing weirdo (A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg) as well as a reset button for the relationship between J and K. It moves along quickly, never wears out its welcome and is full of still-amusing moments recycled from earlier installments. It's bright and cheerful and, in a hokey third act twist, generically sweet. Best of all, the effects are effective, which means it's time for the kind of my-friend-worked-on-the-movie shout out that can only happen when the film critic lives in Los Angeles: way to go, visual effects co-supervisor Jay Redd. And the cool monsters/aliens/Cronenbergian body cavities pop into your face in not-annoying 3D.
Like that brain-wipey thing the black-cladders use -- a neuralyzer? yeah, that's it -- you won't remember much of it by summer's end, or maybe even next week's end, and it won't leave you clamoring for more sequels. This one feels like gentle penance for the lackluster MIB2 already. But as Nothings go it's exactly the right amount.