Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Big-budget satiric crap often subscribes to the theory that if you throw enough comedians at the screen, a few jokes are bound to stick.

It's funny how few jokes actually do.

Amid the lifeless direction of Shawn Levy (The New Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen) are a dead-eyed performance from Ben Stiller, slapping monkeys and impressive special effects, stupider-than-stupid slapstick, frenetic chase scenes and exactly two funny exchanges. The first is early as Stiller takes on Jonah Hill in a verbal tête-à-tête over security guard prowess. The second's a spit-flying challenge from hammy Hank Azaria's lisping Egyptian villain.

Otherwise, the laughs are few as Battle of the Smithsonian barrels from one poorly scripted standoff to the next, forcing typically funny people to do very unfunny things. Christopher Guest is wasted and barely recognizable as Ivan the Terrible. Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan and repeat their roles as the diminutive Jedediah Smith and Octavius, respectively — though they're more plot device than characters. Stiller's clearly cashing a paycheck; Robin Williams is, well, Robin Williams (only less so); and Ricky Gervais brings back his almost amusing uppity Brit museum boss.

Only Amy Adams scores as plucky Amelia Earhart, enthusiastically rattling off anachronistic slang and flirting with an absurdly unworthy Stiller. Whichever agent convinced her to star in this ham-fisted turkey ought to be fired — no amount of spunk can compensate for her underwritten role in this flaccid rescue tale.

The plot, for what it's worth, concerns ex-security guard and now successful infomercial mogul Larry (Stiller), who is called back into action when his inanimate pals from the Museum of Natural History get shipped to the Smithsonian with the magical tablet that brings them to life. As you'd expect, in an archive as vast and historically important as the Smithsonian, all hell busts loose. In particular, pharaoh wannabe Kah Mun Rah (Azaria) uses his rebirth to team up with Napoleon, Al Capone and the aforementioned Ivan to conquer the world.

Look, the original Night at the Museum was no work of brilliance. But it had enough affection, amusing jokes and special-effects wonder for an inoffensive family flick. The sequel, however, is as unimaginative as it is sloppy. With all the history and cultural iconography at its disposal, Battle of the Smithsonian relies on Einstein bobbleheads and cherubs that sport Jonas Brothers mugs (and pipes) to generate pop culture laughs. Worse, it trades in the kind of idiotic (and historically insulting) creativity that recasts genocidal General Custer as a goofy come-from-behind Bill Hader hero.

There are a few mildly clever moments (Stiller and Adams in Alfred Eisenstaedt's famed V-J Day kissing couple photo; a giant Abe Lincoln offers dating advice), but screenwriter Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon can't keep the rules of their own magic straight, much less deliver a decently plotted script. Not only do they allow the tablets to animate all sorts of inanimate objects without reason, they forget Stiller's son halfway through the film, first introducing him as his computer-savvy partner then dropping him from the screen altogether.

In many ways, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian demonstrates Hollywood's unhealthy obsession with sequels and adaptations. No longer are scripts vetted for creativity, storytelling or dramatic engagement. Films are instead forced into production with branding and merchandising considerations coming first. The irony is for a film that espouses a "can-do," "do what you love" spirit via Earhart's character (she likes to use the word "moxie" a lot), there's very little of either displayed.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].


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