A film review by Craig J. Koban

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN jjj

2009, PG-13, 105 mins.

 

Larry Daley: Ben Stiller / Amelia Earhart: Amy Adams / Teddy Roosevelt: Robin Williams / Jedediah Smith: Owen Wilson / General Custer: Bill Hader / Kah Mun Rah/Thinker: Hank Azaria / Ivan the Terrible: Christopher Guest / Cecil Fredericks: Dick Van Dyke / Mission Controller: Clint Howard / Octavius: Steve Coogan / Albert Einstein: Eugene Levy


Directed by Shaun Levy / Written by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon

Yes, I will fully admit here that I was not a huge fan of the original NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM film from 2006.  It was not so much a wretched film as it was one that I thought was wasteful – it was a would-be uproarious and splashy fantasy/comedy that squandered its very valuable comedic talent.  I mean – Saint’s preserve us – how could a film with the likes of Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Paul Rudd, Ricky Gervais, and –yes – Dick Van Dyke be such a decided ho-hum comedic affair.  I laughed so shockingly little throughout the film that I almost cried for a refund. 

The list of comic actors in the film would be the envy of any comedy, but NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: PART ONE never fully capitalized on its arsenal of gifted on-screen charlatans.  The film had plenty of big, exuberant eye candy and spectacle, but it disparagingly overshadowed the laughs that should have been aplenty.  The film had too much orchestrated chaos and action and not enough moments of sidesplitting merriment.  It also proved that all of the multi-million dollar CGI effects and family friendly action and intrigue are not enough to sell a film, especially when it forces the gifted performers to take a back seat. 

Now, this brings me to this film’s inevitable sequel, the inappropriately wordy NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN, which – budgeted at $150million dollars – has the façade of being the most needlessly expensive…needless sequel in many a moon.   The thought of seeing most of the original comedic kingpins once again return for Round Two felt more like an ordeal than a pleasurable experience.  The new film has almost all of the previous film’s actors, as well as a few very key additions, and it certainly is a busier and bigger sequel in terms of scope and scale.

Yet, as I settled into the film I became modestly surprised by how well it upstaged its lackluster predecessor in terms of its amusement quotient.  Surely, MUSEUM 2 is a big, dumb, and monotonous sequel, but it emerges as quite harmless and – much as it was lacking in its prequel – the film is frequently and acerbically uproarious.  It also seems to find a much better balance between “awe” moments of glossy, easily digestible visual engagement, but it also gives the performers this time – thank the movie gods - a lot more room to breathe and be funny.  Is that not – dare I ask – the point of comedies? 

You may recall in the previous MUSEUM entry that a down-on-his-luck night watchmen named Larry Daley (Ben Stiller, phoning in his schtick here, but doing a good job of it) that – through the power of an ancient magical tablet - was able to witness all of Natural Museum of History exhibits come miraculously to life.  At the beginning of the sequel he has certainly moved up the economic food chain as a wealth entrepreneur:  He became the marketing genius behind such inventions as the glow-in-the-dark flashlight (which is highlighted in a very sly infomercial during the film’s prologue).  Despite his newfound wealth and prestige, Larry has annoyingly become a man more focused on business than with his family or his reanimated buddies back at the museum.  During one evening when he goes back to pay a visit to President Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), the former Commander in Chief is about to give Larry the sage-like advice as to what makes a happy life…during which he is frequently interrupted by the annoying buzzing of Larry’s cell phone going off.  Larry is so entrenched with his glow-in-the-dark empire and all text messages relating to it that he can't focus his attention for ten seconds to let poor ol’ Ted speak his mind. 

Well…Larry does put down his Black Berry when he gets the news that the mysterious magic tablet that brought life to the museum’s dioramas, fossils, and statues will now be shipped off to the Smithsonian in Washington.  This, of course, would be very, very bad (which has exhibits that dwarfs all others).  Without hesitation, Larry decides to promptly head to the nation’s capital to prevent what could be a disaster.  Unfortunately for him, he is somewhat late because a world-dominating-hungry fiend from the ancient world, Pharaoh Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) plans to use the tablet to finally take over the world.  He plans to do so by using many of the newly brought-to-life exhibits, like Napoleon (Alain Chabat), Al Capone (Jon Bernthal), and Ivan the Terrible, (Christopher Guest, barely recognizable).  Oscar the Grouch and Darth Vader also show up, wanting to be on the Pharaoh’s evil scheme, but Kahmunrah is not impressed with either of them: He hysterically tells Oscar that he's “not so much evil as he is more or less vaguely grouchy” and when Darth Vader tries to win him over via his ominous visage and mechanized breathing, the Pharaoh embarrasses him by stating, “Is that you breathing?  Because I can't hear myself think!  There's too much going on here; you're asthmatic, you're a robot.  And why the cape?  Are we going to the opera?  I don't think so.”  The Dark Lord of the Sith has rarely been verbally burned so harshly. 

Larry still has some well-trusted allies (in all shapes and sizes). Still along for the ride are pint sized Jedediah (the always frisky and mischievous Owen Wilson) as well as Roman warrior Octavious (the droll Steve Coogan, who gets one of the film’s biggest laughs when he theatrically laments about his plight by staring off into the distance while talking to Larry, to which he replies, “Stop dramatically looking off to the distance when speaking to me.”).    Also along to assist Larry are some new heroes, including the statue of Honest Abe Lincoln (voiced by Azaria) as well as the statue of Rodin’s The Thinker (also voiced by Azaria, pulling Peter Sellers duties here), who hilariously spends too much time…well…thinking and even more time trying to impress the half naked female statues around him.  Frank’s closest companion is Amelia Earhart herself (Amy Adams, radiating perky adorability and an unwavering bubbly charisma), who also attempts to assist Larry rediscover the simple pleasures of life. 

The same screenwriters from MUSEUM I are back (Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) for the follow-up, but they have certainly corrected past mistakes, most notably (as mentioned) allowing the comedy to really flourish.  The opening infomercial hits the right satiric jabs, and largely gone are the first film’s adherence to juvenile sight gags and pratfalls (granted, they are still here, but just not in abundance).  Some of the finest laughs in the film occur without the aid of pixalized exhibits or visual effects, but rather on interplay and witty banter.  There is one sequence in particular – which involves Larry’s brief encounter with a Smithsonian guard (played with deadpan merriment by Jonah Hill) and their ensuing back and forth riffs as to the proper way to pronounce the guard’s first name – is arguably worth the price of admission.  The lesson here is straightforward: let the comedians themselves sell the comedy, not the dim-witted action and visuals. 

The film also has two undeniably knee-slapping supporting performances that single-handedly steal the film.  The first would be from General Custer (the reliable amusing Bill Hader) who is shockingly optimistic about the worth of his basic strategy in life (“Act first, think second!  That’s my motto!”), but he has a very funny moment of reflection late in the film with Larry when he begins to doubt his failures in life (“You’re not a failure, “ Larry sensitively informs him, to which Custer side-splittingly replies, “Oh yeah…have you ever sent over two hundred American troops to their death at the Battle of Little Big Horn?”).  The second performance and comedic grand slam of the film comes in the form of Hank Azaria’s hypnotically amusing turn as the egomaniacal Pharaoh.  Several moments in the film show a cagey and sharp wit, as is one instance where he assumes his new mighty throne in the museum…that…is…Archie Bunker’s armchair, and another has him parading around in Muhammad Ali’s boxing robe.  And, giggles definitely ensue when Al Capone laughs at what he thinks is a dress on Kahmunrah, but he pridefully pleads back, “This is not a dress.  It’s a tunic…and it was very fashionable 3000 years ago…thank-you."  Lastly, there is one amusing action sequence which is a clear-cut spoof of a similar moment in 300, but this time instead of ripped, sword and sandal adorned Spartans, we have two key diorama figures striking terror.  I howled during this moment, as did most of the other adults in the theatre, but I later questioned whether or not a reference to a hard R-rated action film would strike a cord with MUSEUM's intended young viewers..  

The film also has moments of spirited invention, such as the case when Degas’ Dancer and Pollock’s splattered paintings come to life (the tablet also works on art as well).  One of the more inspired moments occurs when Alfred Eisenstaedt’s very celebrated and iconic V-E-Day photo (involving a smooching sailor in Times Square from1945) comes to life, so much so that Larry and Amelia are able to actually jump into it and – bang! – they are transported to the Big Apple for the actual event.  Oh…and speaking of Amelia…the incandescent and instantly lovable Amy Adams makes every single moment she’s in glow with a sweet, innocent, and vivacious charisma and energy and she represents the single best addition to MUSEUM 2.  And…to be frank…who in the hell needs computer trickery and silly action set pieces when the best special effects in the film are her shimmering smile and sparkling eyes.  I propose a new movie rule: Amy Adams must be in every new movie. 

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 2 is not spotless by any account: It loses some of its comedic bite near the end with a series of pure cornball-infested moments of false sentimentality, not to mention that Larry’s eleventh hour transformation here is never plausible (gee, I never knew that a rich and industrious businessman would be willing to abandon his million dollar company in order to return to what he “loves”…being a night guardsman?!  Yup.  Sure.  Uh huh.).  As funny as many of the performances are, the film still misses the mark with many of the limitlessly gifted actors: Christopher Guest – one of the most hysterical men of the movies – fails to garner even a chuckle here as Ivan.  Also squandered is Ricky Gervais, who has proven time and time again that he just may be the single funniest man on the planet…when he is given the opportunity.  No matter, because these are small quibbles.  NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 2 easily ups the ante of the first film: Sure, its innocuous and unnecessary as far as sequels go, but when honest and sincere attempts have been made to correct the past film’s ills, then that deserves merit.  

In the end, I found myself appreciating its unbridled loopiness and its delightful eagerness to make me laugh, something that the 2006 entry failed to do.    

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