Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian: Giant-Sized Cast, Decent-Sized Laughs
Ben Stiller. Robin Williams. Owen Wilson. Amy Adams. Ricky Gervais. Christopher Guest. Eugene Levy. Hank Azaria. Steve Coogan. Bill Hader. Jay Baruchel. THREE cast members of The Office (Ed Helms, Mindy Kaling, Craig Robinson). Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. There are a LOT of funny people in this movie—so many that the film couldn’t possibly live up to the humor potential provided by the cast. Yet despite the workman-like directing and the typical shortcomings of the manic live-action PG-rated kiddie film, this sequel is a fun improvement over the first and even dabbles in being (gasp!) really clever at times.
Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is no longer the night guard at the Museum of Natural History—he’s the CEO of Daley Devices, fully living out his dream of being an inventor. He goes back for a trip down memory lane to the old stomping ground to discover his friends are all (conveniently for the plot) being shipped away to be stored in the Federal Archives in D.C., never to come to life again. He gets a phone call the next day from miniature cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson), who said the monkey stole the magic tablet that brings them to life, and a pharaoh in the Federal Archives has come to life and is threatening them all. Don’t think about questions like, “There’s a phone inside a storage bin in the Federal Archives?” and “How did that little man know Larry’s home phone number, much less lift the receiver and dial the buttons?” Jedediah even says something along the lines of, “Don’t worry about that, there’s no time to explain,” which serves as the mantra of the film’s logic.
The villain is Kahmunrah, played by Hank Azaria with a lisping Boris Karloff voice and appropriate levels of scenery-chewing. He needs the tablet to bring his army back from the underworld… or something. He recruits villainous figures such as Napoleon, Al Capone, and Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest, who delivers his limited lines with trademark dryness). Meanwhile, Daley is assisted by Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), who cracks wise like the heroine of a 1930s screwball comedy. Everyone from the previous film makes an appearance, including my girlfriend’s favorite, the Easter Island head with the voice of Brad Garrett– an inspired choice. All of the casting is inspired, really, including the welcome addition of the always-hilarious Bill Hader as General Custer.
Shawn Levy directs this film with the mentality of “We’ll throw as much as we can at the screen and see what sticks.” When the bits are inspired, they actually verge on being admirably clever, such as when Stiller and Adams are being chased by Kahmunrah’s lackeys and they avoid capture by jumping into the famous WWII photo of the sailor kiss. Many other paintings are glimpsed for a second, and I wish we could have used more of those gags. Also, Stiller is great at allowing the other actors to do extended riffs with him, being the good sport straight man to Azaria’s Kahmunrah and Jonah Hill’s Smithsonian guard in two of the funniest scenes in the film. Finally, the take the film has on Amelia Earhart is delightful, giving Stiller a good counterpart to play off of throughout the film– the last film suffered because it was all Stiller’s straight man, all the time. Here, Amy Adams uses her trademark sunniness to great effect, spitting out dialogue directing out of the Hepburn-Tracy era, leaving Stiller befuddled and taken aback by her, to use her character’s word, moxie.
Yet Levy lets some of his bits go way too far. Three cherubs noting that Stiller had his hand on Adams’ shoulder singing “More Than A Woman” is funny. When the cherubs go on to sing a hip-hop version of the song, looking conspicuously like the Jonas Brothers, and Stiller tells them to shut up for thirty seconds, it’s not funny. Same goes for the Einstein bobbleheads (voiced by Eugene Levy), who says, “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it,” and you pray they don’t all begin singing the song, but of course they do. (Sidenote: Why is it the anachronisms of this film are illogical without bothering me, but listening to Einstein sing KC and the Sunshine Band just seems WRONG?) Also, if the first film’s lack of caring about tying up loose ends bothers you, just wait until the end of this film, which couldn’t make less sense or be more unresolved– not in sense of the characters, who all get their issues settled, but in terms of the mayhem and mess they’ve created, which is ignored and never discussed. How D.C. would deal with the total destruction of several of its museums could be funny, if handled with the intelligence that this film only wants to exercise in spurts.
In the end, this movie is fine, with many laughs and plenty of diversion for kids who enjoyed the first– indeed, it’s definitely better the first. Amy Adams’ presence alone ensures that. I could see this series becoming the new Cannonball Run. We’ve already seen that every comedian working is willing to get in on the fun, and certainly they must be fun films to shoot, since everyone seems to be having a great time. Night at the Museum: Return to the Archives could be a lot of fun. Look, Steve Martin as George Washington! Jim Carrey as Bismarck! Look at all the comedians playing historical figures! Sure, watching all of the names mentioned in the first paragraph eating dinner together and chatting would almost definitely be much funnier than this film was at the end of the day. However, until someone shoots that dinner and puts it on screen, this series will have to do. Hopefully the third film can focus more on the wit and ease up on the mania.