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Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

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The original Night at the Museum (2006) took place in the American Museum of Natural History. Its sequel is set in the galleries of the Smithsonian. Together, these two frantic, pandering productions could easily outfit a third repository: The Museum of Stupid Movie Clichés.

Even by Hollywood sequel standards, this is lazily conceived, cynically recycled stuff. Since we last had the pleasure of his company, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) has left his job as a night guard and started a company. Just like that he’s become fantastically rich hawking his inventions on infomercials. Now there’s a cultural target that hasn’t already been spoofed to death.

One day, after shooting a spot with George Foreman (get it? Foreman really makes infomercials, so it’s hilarious the movie’s creators hired him to appear in this fake one), Larry decides out of the blue to visit his former place of employment, which he finds in the midst of renovation. Much of its old collection, he learns, is in the process of being crated up and carted off to the Smithsonian’s National Archives to make way for gimmicky new interactive exhibits designed to hold the attention of media-addicted kids.

At once, Larry realizes what he must do: Leave his preteen son behind in New York, rush to Washington, D.C., and rescue his artifactual friends from an eternity in storage. Once there, the first challenge he faces is getting access to the Archives. They’re off limits to visitors, so the resourceful guard-turned-gazillionaire does what any movie hero would do in his situation. He steals an ID badge from a night watchman and makes his way to that room easily located in all pictures like this — the one filled with uniforms just waiting to be used by infiltrators as disguises.

To be fair, I should mention that the night watchman in question is played by Jonah Hill, and the interaction between the two (unfortunately, Hill’s sole scene) provides every one of the film’s five funny minutes. It seems likely that, when the DVD is released, the outtakes from this largely improvised sequence alone will be good for triple the laughs in the rest of the sequel. The scene comes early. Savor it. Put down the Milk Duds. Focus your attention. The next 90 minutes are going to be merriment-free.

Once he’s made his way into the bowels of the building, Larry soon gets his hands on the magic Egyptian tablet that brought his collectible cohorts to life last time around. He uses it to reanimate returning characters Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), Sacajawea (Mizou Peck), miniature cowboy Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson) and tiny Roman pal Octavius (Steve Coogan), along with a gaggle of grunting Neanderthals. (Do you really care who plays these guys?)

The happy reunion is cut short, however, by the tablet-related but more or less unexplained arrival of a party-pooping pharaoh named Kahmunrah and played by a lisping Hank Azaria. You’ll never guess his evil plan: Yup, he wants to take over the world and, to this end, commandeers the tablet long enough to revivify a trio of henchmen — Napoleon (Alain Chabat), Al Capone (Jon Bernthal) and, shockingly, Christopher Guest in the role of Ivan the Terrible. Terrible, I’m afraid, doesn’t begin to cover it. How sad to see an artist of his caliber mixed up in such a mindless movie. He has maybe three lines — not one funny — and literally looks lost.

Things only get more chaotic and less comic from there, as the film’s creators attempt to compensate for the shortage of yuks with an infusion of ever more new characters. The plotline, such as it is, quickly degenerates into a chuckleheaded face-off between Larry’s crew and that of Azaria’s over-the-top demigod. It’s like The Mummy as envisioned by the Stooges.

Returning director Shawn Levy sends in the troops — Bill Hader as General Custer; Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart; a giant Lincoln who vacates his chair at the Memorial to lend a giant hand; Rodin’s The Thinker (who must think it curious to find himself stateside, since he’s on permanent display in Paris) and a couple of monkeys. (You know a comedy’s in trouble when it stoops to simians.) But it’s a lost cause. All the famous dead people and statues in the world can’t distract us from the awareness that the mayhem is more moronic than madcap and that the movie squanders some of the cinema’s finest comic talent. It requires a special gift to assemble a cast including Stiller, Hill, Wilson, Hader and Guest and somehow keep the laugh count this low.

I don’t know; maybe if you’re, like, 5, regard a lisp as the height of humor, and have never seen CGI creatures parade across a big screen before, the new Night at the Museum could be worth your time. What else have you got to do? The rest of us aren’t likely to miss or even recall it once this scattershot, scatterbrained series becomes history.

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