A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM jj

2006, PG, 95 mins.

 

Larry Daley: Ben Stiller / Nick: Jake Cherry / Theodore Roosevelt: Robin Williams / Cecil Fredericks: Dick Van Dyke / Gus: Mickey Rooney / Jedidiah: Owen Wilson / Mr. McPhee: Ricky Gervais / Octavius: Steven Coogan

Directed by Shawn Levy /  Written by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon

 

The new fantasy/comedy NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM has one of the most impressive comedic rosters of any recent film.  Just consider the talent on board here: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Paul Rudd, Ricky Gervais, and –yes – Dick Van Dyke. 

Stiller has made some of the more sidesplitting comedies of the last decade.  Ditto for Owen Wilson.  Steve Coogan perhaps gave one of the funniest performances of the year in one of 2006’s best comedies, TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY.  Paul Rudd was a scatological riot as a loser in THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN.  Ricky Gervais just may take top honors as the funniest man alive.  His performance in TV’s THE OFFICE (the original BBC version, not the Americanized NBC offering) just might be the most hilarious ever to grace the tube.  It seems legitimate to say that NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM has the goods – at least on paper – to potentially be a romp of unrelenting hilarity.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is not so much in the number of gifted comic actors the film has in its arsenal, but more in how misused they all are.  NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM has moments of slapstick fun and a few genuine chuckles here and there, but it is never able to create and maintain a consistent laugh-out-loud quotient throughout its 95 minutes.  It has a nifty presence (what if all of the exhibits at the Natural History Museum in New York came alive every night), but the film itself never creates anything clever or memorable beyond its own gimmick.  Instead, it lets its predilection towards juvenile humor that only pre-pubescent kids would enjoy and its oversaturated – and inconsistent – CGI effects take center stage.  As a result, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM is never really exciting, entertaining, or funny.  It lacks that latter element to the largest degree.  It also might be the first film that I’ve seen where a Natural History exhibit urinates on a person’s head and shoulders.  Hardy-har.

The film typifies Hollywood’s strict and strident adherence to what I call “kitchen sink” cinema.  In essence, throw just about anything at the screen and hope that it all gels seamlessly and smoothly together to create an enjoyable whole.  Certainly, there’s a lot of stuff thrown at our eyes in the film – famous historical figures and monuments, cowboys and Roman soldiers, lions and tigers, zebras and monkeys, hell…even stampeding dinosaur bones – but having all of these things run amok does not make for a fun and enjoyable ride.  There’s simply too much chaos aplenty in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM and not enough discipline.  Even worse is the cast, who collectively should have been able to leave me in stitches for weeks.  Instead, they inspired me to check my watch a lot and yearn to leave the theatre to see the light of day. 

Now, there is nothing wrong with a comedy with fantastical elements that approaches being a live action cartoon.  There is energy to NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, but no heart and wit.  Surely, there could have been ample room for social satire and hearty laughs with the thought of a night watchman interacting with – say – Attila the Hun or Teddy Roosevelt.  The film creates a few scattered scenes of mild amusement, but no moments truly grasp for wanton hilarity, or a sense of cadence or flow.  All we essentially have is the usually funny, socially inept Ben Stiller run, fall, scream, and get peed on.  Clearly, Stiller has made a career of playing roles where his utter humiliation provides for much of the laughs, but in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM he seems to be a bit on auto-pilot in a derivative, mindless, and hyperactive story.  When the sights and sounds overwhelm the actors – some of whom are the funniest working today – then what’s the point?

Stiller plays Larry Daley, a desperate sap and a divorcee that sees to have a lot of problems securing and holding on to a job.  He has a strained relationship with his ex-wife and an equally problematic one with his son that means the world to him, but he really needs to land a job to get some respect.  His mission to gain employment is made all the more dire by the fact that his wife is getting close to a hugely successful bond trader (Paul Rudd, whose comedic abilities are all but stunted in a role that could be best described as a walk-on; what a waste).  The bond trader not only has Larry’s wife in his back pocket, but he’s even managed to lure his son over to his side.

Soon, in a desperate act, Larry takes the only job that is currently available to him: night watchman at New York’s Museum of Natural History.  Obviously, a graveyard shift at a job he has little interest in seems very unappealing, but Larry begrudgingly takes it.  Larry may not know much about being a watchman, but he also knows very little about history, so he tries to pick up some helpful info from the museum’s pretty guide (Carla Gugino, the film’s only good eye candy).  Through her he also meets up with the museum’s hard edged and foul tempered museum director, Mr. McPhee (played by the great Gervais in a performance that never really harnesses his gifts).

Larry also meets the men that he’s set to replace.  His predecessors are played by none other than veterans Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cobbs, and Mickey Rooney, the latter who just might be old enough to actually be an exhibit at the museum.  Anyhoo’, the three of them give Larry a few pointers here and there, as well as leaving him an instruction manual that he is to follow.  As the three old chuckleheads leave Larry slowly starts to think that something is not normal with the museum.  His suspicions are confirmed when he sees the T-Rex bone exhibit come to life and take a drink from the water fountain.  While Larry is astonished, I was left wondering, gee, what benefit would a creature made up all of  bones need with guzzling H2O?  Oh, never mind.

Within no time, all historical hell breaks loose.  Larry finds himself being chased by Attila the Hun, conversing with Teddy Roosevelt (curiously underplayed by the usually zany Robin Williams), and being tormented by miniature exhibits, like the Wild West one with a cowboy played by Owen Wilson, who has some of the films decent chuckles (“I wish you would not refer to me as small, that hurts me!”) as well as 3 inch tall Octavius, played by Steven Coogan who also generates a few more laughs (“Our hearts are all big in battle…metaphorically speaking”).

Considering the wild and imaginative premise, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM really suffers from a definite lack of magic and heart.  Nothing really captures a legitimate sense of awe and wonder.  I mean, what if one could strike up a conversation with Teddy Roosevelt or hang with an ancient Egyptian ruler?  Beyond that, what if lions, mammoths, and skeletal dinos came to life right before your eyes?  There was not one moment during NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM that inspired a sense of fun, whimsy, or excitement.  What we really have is scene after scene of regurgitated CGI visuals that seem like discarded elements from JUMANJI mixed in some bathroom humour and a lot of sight gags that no one over ten will honestly appreciate.  There’s no intelligence in the film’s humour.  All we get is a lot of creatures running around and into things and a few embarrassing glimpses of an 86-year-old Rooney sheepishly dish out weak and stale one-liners as if he’s being fed them through hearing aid.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM ultimately suffers considerably from the squandering of its most precious resource – its talent.  Again, it needs to be mentioned that the film should get some sort of lifetime Razzie achievement award for most blatant misuse of accredited comedic stars.  Stiller has been so winning, funny, and likeable in past comedies where he played an everyman who commanded our sympathy when insurmountably heinous atrocities happened to him.  Here, he just runs around screaming and reacting to visuals.  Coogan and Wilson have some fun with their parts, part they never really sparkle.  Williams seems to be reigned in a bit much, and Dick Van Dyke and company do a lot of horrible camera mugging.  And – horror upon horror – when a film can’t make Ricky Gervais inspire large laughs to the point of tears, then something is very wrong.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM is not an awful film; I would recommend it to younger children who can find entertainment value in being distracted for a few hours by visual excesses and unintelligible jokes.  Beyond that, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM will bore the rest of us in the sense that it represents a large misappropriation of power.  While watching it I felt like it came across as being directed by a kid that had every cool toy and his disposal and had no idea how to play with them.  NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM was directed by Shawn Levy, a filmmaker who took a tremendously gifted comedian like Steve Martin earlier this year and made him parade around in the abortively awful PINK PANTHER remake.  As with that film, Levy has a huge arsenal of proven comic masterminds in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, but instead of letting them loose to inspire and generate hearty laughs, he lets them get swallowed up by the film's perfunctory and monotonous spectacle.  The movie is just too pea-brained and dumb for the caliber of performers it has.  Even worse, it’s disposal and banal filmmaking.  The film reminds me of something Ricky Gervais’ David Brent once said: “If at first you don't succeed, remove all evidence you ever tried.”

 

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