The romantic comedy is making a shy attempt at a comeback. After the big success of “Aquaman” last year and “Aladdin” this year, we get a third attempt with “Men In Black International.” Meet-cute and romantic quarrels were not the MIB brand before, but then Will Smith is a blue genie these days, so why not try something new?
But there’s a problem. These stories feature actors aged 25 to 40 playing the same kind of teenagers. They are all essentially supermodels and are rarely asked to act, whatever their abilities. We rely on technology to make up the difference. We get the same daring boys who are essentially stupid, but have good hearts, and the same brainy girls who are very shy, with no experience of the world, but turn out to win in every conceivable situation.
In “Men In Black International,” where international is code for a tourism film taking you through Marrakesh, Paris, and London, you have Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson trying to pull off this impossibility. They were paired in “Thor: Ragnarok” and somebody obviously thought they might make a good romantic pair.
Their careers outside of Marvel are next to non-existent, so why not try the long-extinct genre? So far, so good, but then we’re stuck with the fact that these beautiful models have little personality.
Thompson has a capacity for physical comedy rarely indulged in the story—she knows how to play awkward and geeky, and make fun of herself. Small touches like walking funnily now and then suggest what might have been. She plays a new recruit into the Men In Black who’s had an obsession with them since childhood. The combination of adoration and inadequacy could make for a good coming of age story.
But she can never be allowed to be ridiculous. She has to be perfect enough to outsmart and outmaneuver everyone, even as she says her life is empty because love, friendship, and family are a distraction from her chosen profession. Is a caricature of a businesswoman with a howling void inside of her the very model of a modern successful woman? That would be funny in a way, as well, like Sandra Bullock in “The Proposal,” but that avenue for comedy is also forbidden.
Instead, we have iron laws that require her to make fun of Hemsworth and notice his failures continuously, to prove she’s a strong, independent woman and he is an arrogant, ignorant loser. Since he plays the MIB veteran and she’s just a recruit, this is insane on the face of it, but the laws of Hollywood feminism cannot be bent, much less broken. The notion of a woman learning from a man is out of bounds. Why, then, isn’t she the veteran and he the recruit?
Since we have made a kind of equality into a religion, it’s harder and harder to make comedies. Comedy is always somebody making fun of somebody else, which is not the religious respect for everyone today’s equality demands. Comedy is inherently judgmental. You have to be willing to make fun of foibles and foolishness, and show that although we pretend to be perfect, we’re not. Our desire to turn into perfect statues is itself funny. That’s what comedy requires and that’s what comedy has to offer.
For romantic comedy, you need the willingness to say that men and women fall in love not because they’re equal, but because both feel a deep incompleteness and inadequacy in themselves and need each other. This doesn’t create equality: It creates all the problems we see in our own lives.
One reason the romantic comedy is dead is because marriage is in a miserable state and people are lonely and incompetent about mating and dating, the essential social task after mere survival! We don’t dare admit we are bad at what we really need to be good at if we are to be at all happy and content. Therefore, we cannot have comedies that gentle our desires and desperate hopes and lead to some plausible happy end.
Hemsworth seems to love making fun of himself—it’s what Thor has turned into, both in his own movies and in the “Avengers,” and it’s what he did in the “Ghostbusters” reboot that flopped miserably a few years back. He’s impossibly handsome, has a good accent, and is physically impressive, so humor is a way to allow audiences to admire him without resentment. He’s perfect, but silly. He can become a pet, as it were, to the audience. He seems to have some talent for comedy — he hams it up, and his timing is not bad.
He gets far more action than she does and the combination of his physical presence, the grotesque aliens that are MIB staples, and the somewhat farcical set-pieces full of CGI should make for great slapstick. But it rarely works. The script does not allow him to do much, and he lacks the comic education and imagination to really make a fool of himself.
Everything feels cramped, moving from plot beat to plot beat without any of the scenes making an impression. It’s like they were in a hurry to put each mess behind them. It’s a movie that’s not even a first draft of itself, but only a few suggestions never fully sketched out.
Partly, this is because there’s a tension between featuring everymen as heroes and comedy. Since the everyman heroes are representatives of the audience, the audience would have to be willing to be ridiculed through those representatives. Less of the romantic flattery surrounding perfect people, more of the big show of how ridiculous men and women truly are. We like beautiful people on our screens too much, perhaps.
At least in a comedy, we’re still allowed to think that women might say men are boasters and that men might say women nag. These everyday complaints are the kinds of things comedy makes into a story where, despite our pretense, we could return to a natural understanding of love. But we first have to dare to admit that for all our moralistic talk, where every man, woman, and child in America is great, we are very bad at dating and mating.