I was no big fan of the 2006 high-concept smash comedy Night at the Museum, so I think it's fair to qualify my reaction to its bigger, louder follow-up, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, as "pleasantly surprised." It's by no means a great film -- often it's not even a good one -- but it is livelier and more energetic than its predecessor, boasts an impressive cast and continually finds ways to hold our attention. It's not any more fresh than the first film, but it is more fun. Who would've guessed?
The Story (If You Can Call It That)
As Smithsonian opens, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) has left his job as night watchman at the Museum of Natural History and become a successful infomercial star as the inventor of fairly useless products like the "glow in the dark flashlight." After learning that the museum is shipping off most of its exhibits to storage at the Smithsonian -- and that they'll be without the magical tablet that brings them to life each night -- Larry decides to try and rescue his inanimate friends.
At the Smithsonian, however, is the newly-revived ancient Egyptian ruler Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), bent on stealing the tablet and opening the door to the Underworld. Or something. Helping him out is Al Capone (in black and white), Napolean Bonaparte and Alexander the Great (an utterly wasted Christopher Guest). It's up to Larry and his museum friends -- with the help of some new faces including Gen. Custer (Bill Hader) and Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) -- to stop Kahmunrah and save...the Smithsonian? The world? I don't know. Does it matter?
Writers Who Should Know Better
The screenplay to Smithsonian, by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, does the film its biggest disservice. It feels like a rush job, with convenient plot devices (like the one that gets Larry and everyone to the Smithsonian, or the entire "magic tablet" plot) that could have used a few more drafts to be improved. There's little sense of an overall story, and the whole thing feels episodic -- every few minutes, it seems like Larry has a new goal he has to accomplish. For the most part, it seems he needs to rescue Owen Wilson's tiny cowboy character from the inside of an hourglass, but you never really get the sense there's any danger (it's no help that Wilson performs his role like he's doing line readings for the audio book).
The movie really spins its wheels in one sequence, where he's required to figure out a combination to the tablet. It's almost insultingly stupid until you learn the answer. Then you know what it's like to really to be insulted. I don't understand how Garant and Lennon -- who have yet to write a movie that's very good -- can be so funny with projects like The State and Reno 911! and so lazy and pandering in their screenwriting.
Working In Spite of Itself
When the movie works at all, it's in spite of the script and not because of it. Director Shawn Levy continues to embrace his generic, please-everyone style that's totally detrimental to comedy (if you're trying to be funny to everyone, you end up with no voice at all). But he does keep things moving at a quick clip and loads the thing up with some neat special effects, while at the same time managing to avoid too much overkill. Plus, for comedy fans, there's a new recognizable face every few minutes; in addition to Robin Williams (whose role, thankfully, has been cut down since the first film), Hader and Guest, there's quick cameos by Ricky Gervais, Jonah Hill, Eugene Levy, Ed Helms, Craig Robinson and Mindy Kaling.
Ben Stiller serves his purpose in the film, which is to play straight man and occasionally look concerned. He's helped immeasurably by Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart; she makes every second she's onscreen really work (watch the expression on her face when the two fly from one building to another; for a minute, you forget what movie you're seeing). Plus, her costume designer ought to win several awards. But with last year's Tropic Thunder, we know that Stiller still knows how to be edgy and funny; that makes his participation in these kinds of big, safe "family" movies all the more frustrating. If Battle of the Smithsonian were the exception and not the rule, I could be a lot more forgiving. He's appeared in far worse. Now let's hope he gets back to making comedy for fans of actual comedy.
There's little chance that Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is going to end up on any critics' 10 Best lists -- largely because it's been utterly hammered by critics thus far. I get why they'd want to pile on -- and I was even ready to -- but I really didn't dislike the movie. Maybe that's faint praise, but I've already sat through Terminator Salvation and X-Men Origins: Wolverine this summer. I know a shapeless mess when I see it. Night at the Museum isn't great cinema and isn't without its large share of problems, but more than once I found myself enjoying it. Maybe that's just the low expectations talking.
- Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is rated PG for mild action and brief language.
- Running Time: 105 minutes
- Release Date: May 22, 2009