Movie review: Skip 'Night at the Museum,' visit the real thing
Deep down, beyond all the noise and bland characterizations fueling the “Night at the Museum” phenomenon lays the germ of an admirable attempt to bring history alive for kids too lazy to use their own imaginations.
Why should little Billy have to conceptualize what Egyptian pharos and Teddy Roosevelt were really like when he has Hank Azaria and Robin Williams to do it for him? And why go to a museum when he can take it all in vicariously through Ben Stiller’s slightly deranged night watchman?
Ah, yet another modern convenience to give our weary brains a rest from reading and thinking. Who knows how far this will take us. Perhaps to a level of stupidity matching the Neanderthals. And I’m not talking about the Cro-Magnon dudes from the first “Night at the Museum.” I’m talking about the neo-Neanderthals who wrote and directed these nightmares at the museum.
At times, it’s hard to tell what’s older: the history or the jokes. Mostly, it’s the latter, as “writers” Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant and director Shawn Levy all return to fill the screen with the types of lame slapstick and stupid pet tricks that became passé when movies began to talk.
That’s not nearly as infuriating as the way they desecrate the legacies of historical icons like Abe Lincoln, Napoleon and Amelia Earhart, rendered in the new sequel, “Battle of the Smithsonian,” as a chirpy object of lust for Stiller’s budding necrophiliac Larry Daley, back to spend another night with the living dead.
Larry is headed to Washington, D.C., which is where his zombie pals from New York’s Museum of Natural History are being relocated to make room for modern interactive exhibits like a chatty Teddy Roosevelt hologram.
Larry, however, has other ideas. He, in his infinite wisdom, plans to rescue them from a fate worse than death – or, it would be worse if they weren’t already dead. But that doesn’t stop Larry, who when we first meet up with him again is doing TV infomercials with George Foreman peddling a glow-in-the-dark flashlight he invented.
Given that we live in a world where a turkey like “Night at the Museum” earns $250 million at the box office, it’s understandable that there are enough gullible people out there in TV land to make Larry a very rich man. But in the tradition of the most insincere of Hollywood parables, money no longer makes him happy. Dead people do, especially the stiffs down at the old museum.
So, when he learns that the MNH’s curator (Ricky Gervais) is planning to ship Jedediah (Owen Wilson), Octavius (Steve Coogan), Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck) and the rest of the artifacts off to the cavernous storage caverns beneath the Smithsonian, Larry is more than ready to dust off his night watchman gear and rush to their aid by circumventing the museum’s high-tech security system.
But what does he think he’s rescuing them from? And just what does he plan to do with all of them once they are back in safely his hands? Levy (the lousy “Cheaper by the Dozen” flicks) and company never bother to address these queries, choosing instead to bombard the screen with ridiculous computer-animated action sequences rooted in an uprising led by Napoleon (Alain Chabat), Egyptian ruler Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Al Capone (Jon Bernthal) and General Custer (Bill Hader).
The only one registering more than a yawn, though, is Amy Adams as Earhart. Channeling Katharine Hepburn via Cate Blanchett, Adams is a welcome force of nature that livens up every scene she’s in. Unfortunately, she’s not in it enough. Even more unfortunate, Ben Stiller is.
It’s not even 10 minutes into the movie before you’re tempted to lock him away in a glass case and throw away the key. At his best, he’s grating. At his worst, he’s intolerable. Ditto for Robin Willams, back playing Teddy Roosevelt, both as a whole person and, even more symbolically, as a bust.
Come to think of it, just about everyone and everything associated with the sequel is trying. And the reason they’re trying is because they’re trying too hard to strain comedy out of a script so unfunny it can’t even summon a smile.
Ho, hum. Well, at least there’s Adams, who I’m now convinced could make even the worst movie intermittently watchable, as she does here. But as much as I loved her portrayal of Earhart, I must quibble with the producers who thought it a good idea to give good ol’ Amelia a sex-kittenish edge.
Yes, that sound you just heard was the real Amelia rolling over in her grave. And wherever that grave might be, it’s bound to be a much livelier place than this dusty old museum.
Reach Al Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN (PG for mild action and brief language.) Cast includes Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Hank Azeria, Robin Williams and Christopher Guest. Directed by Shawn Levy. 1 star out of 4.