'Men in Black 3' (PG-13)

In order to make its target release date, Men in Black 3 started shooting without a completed script. Now the movie is out, and I’m pretty sure the screenplay was never finished. Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder) is credited as the writer, although several other folks took passes at it. Cohen was just the guy who drew the short straw and wound up with his name in the credits. It’s a tough break, because the blame for this crass, empty movie doesn’t really rest with him.

No, the people to blame for this cash-grab are Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld and the studio executives who pushed forward with Men in Black 3, even though no one actually remembered or even liked Men in Black 2, because they knew audiences would line up to see it no matter what. All they needed to sell the film was enough footage to make an appealing trailer, which they got courtesy of Josh Brolin, playing a younger version of Agent K (Jones) in 1969.

Brolin has been on a roll of great performances (No Country For Old Men, W, True Grit, Milk), but he rarely gets an opportunity to play funny, and he seems delighted by the chance to do it here. His impersonation of Jones’ deadpan voice and inexpressive demeanor and clipped, curt sentences is so uncanny, he outshines every single special effect in the movie — and this is a film that has some sort of computer-generated trickery in almost every shot.

But Brolin’s amusing performance is not enough to justify the rest of this enormous, expensive folly. Every other actor in Men in Black 3 look utterly bored and unengaged — even the ones playing aliens. Smith is a hugely charismatic star who always gives his all, even when he’s stranded in a dud such as Wild Wild West (another train wreck Sonnenfeld directed). Here, though, he appears hesitant, even uncertain, that dusting off the black suit and shades for one more go-around was a good idea.

The plot of Men in Black 3 requires Agent J (Smith) to travel back in time to keep his partner from being assassinated. But aside from an interesting scene in which Smith is rudely reminded that civil rights were radically different 40 years ago, the movie has little use for its period setting. Instead, you get hoary gags about oversized cell phones and a cameo by Andy Warhol (Bill Hader), who turns out to have been friendly with aliens all along.

Men in Black 3 fumbles all its opportunities to play around with the paradoxes inherent in time travel: A new character (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) has the ability to see the future, but the film uses him primarily for schmaltz and sentiment. There’s a big revelation near the end of the movie that’s supposed to put a lump in your throat, but it makes you gag instead. Who goes to see a Men in Black picture to get choked up? Weren’t these films intentionally designed to be irreverent and goofy?

The one thing Men in Black 3 unquestionably has going for it is its look. Sonnenfeld was a cinematographer before he became a director (he shot Miller’s Crossing and Raising Arizona for the Coen brothers), and he knows how to compose beautiful, shiny images that beg for a freeze-frame button, so you can study them closer. The special effects are terrific — when Smith is standing on one of the iconic gargoyles of the Chrysler building, he really looks like he’s up there — and the 3D is the best I’ve seen since Avatar, or maybe just the best, period. Men in Black 3 is so dull and empty, it’s the first movie that has ever made me think “Thank God this is in 3D.”

Cast: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Emma Thompson, Jemaine Clement, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alice Eve.

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld.

Screenwriter: Etan Cohen.

Producers: Laurie MacDonald, Walter F. Parkes.

A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 105 minutes. Brief vulgar language, mock violence. Opens Friday May 25 at area theaters.