Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Movie Review: Night at the Museum 2...it's non-stop action! Please, can we have a minute to breathe?

While the original "Night at the Museum" (NATM) will never be compared with "Casablanca" when it comes to discussing great cinema, the Ben Stiller flick about the exhibits in the Natural History Museum coming to life was an entertaining popcorn flick that showed sparks of wit and whimsy, not too mention a nice plug for getting kids to a museum. With that in mind, when we were in dire need of a fun movie on Friday night, we decided that "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" was worth a chance (plus we had AAA discount tickets so we avoided paying full freight and "Terminator Salvation" didn't have quite the humor quotient we sought).

My feelings about it as we left? Meh.

***Minor Spoiler Alert***

Set several years after the first movie, one-time night guard Larry Daly (Ben Stiller) is now a successful infomercial product inventor who doesn't spend much time with his son (NATM #1's focus was on Larry finding the job he was meant to do and reconnecting with his son). The exhibits at the Natural History Museum in New York are being packed up and shipped to the National Archives at the Smithsonian to make way for whiz-bang holographic, interactive exhibits. However, the magic Egyptian tablet that brings the exhibits to life at night is shipped along by mistake thereby releasing all sorts of chaos in Washington, leaving Larry to get to Washington and put everything right in the space of one night. (With me so far?)

By moving the action to the Smithsonian and Washington DC, the scope of the "inanimate objects coming to life" concept is far broader as Larry and the tablet move from the original Smithsonian building and the archives to one of the art galleries to the Air and Space Museum. Rockets and planes roar about the screen; sculptures, paintings, and photos come to life; and a whole new cast of characters emerges to take center stage while many of the familiar friends from the first NATM are resigned to bit players here.

Some of these efforts work. Seeing Rodin's The Thinker as a dope with a Brooklyn accent and a thing for the ladies ("Boom Boom Fiya powah!") is worth a laugh. Watching Stiller grab the pitchfork from Grant Wood's American Gothic to use in self-defense brought a chuckle and a Jeff Koons Balloon Dog bounding around the screen was a great gag. Of course, the sixth grader in me could appreciate Owen Wilson's tiny Jedediah crowing "This cowboy just got to second base" after being stowed in Larry's shirt pocket prior to Larry getting a kiss and hug. Other jokes fall dreadfully flat...seriously, the "General Custer is a vapid, vain idiot" joke was dead on arrival as were the three cupids (more correctly "putti") with the faces and voices of the Jonas Brothers singing "More than a Woman".

Events are spurred on by the appearance of evil Kamunrah, older brother of Akmunrah, the good pharoah from NATM whose tablet not only brings the exhibits to life but can also release an army from the underworld. Hank Azaria chews the scenery and channels Boris Karloff for all he's worth as Kamunrah while Amy Adams is along for the ride as Amelia Earhart, fast-talking woman of action and awkward love interest for Stiller's Larry.

The fun of the original NATM came from sharing Larry's amazement as the museum's denizens came to life and how how he came to be accepted by them and his son. This time around, Larry isn't a schlub who has never succeeded...he's a success with plenty of money, attitude, and no sense of surprise at what's going on around him.

As a result, the movie feels like nothing so much as an amusement park ride, simply zipping along from one action set piece to another with no time to take a breath or actually develop much in the way of a plot or characters. Whole ideas are dropped -- Larry's son appears only briefly to set up that idea that Larry is letting his success take him away from his son but there's no reconciliation at the end. Repeated mentions of a meeting with a major big box store sound like nothing so much as a product placement for that particular chain because nothing ever happens with it. A young security guard with attitude of his own shows up to face off against Larry but then is never seen again, despite the fact that he would have been the perfect protege for Larry as well as serving as the face of surprise that Larry no longer has.

By the time the movie devolves into a massive fight between Kamunrah's forces and exhibits from the Smithsonian and Natural History museums, you've been hammered with so many effects and set pieces you're exhausted. You're left to wonder what the filmmakers could have accomplished if they'd taken some ideas, like sending Larry and Amelia into Eisenstaedt's "The Kiss at Times Square" a bit farther. The idea that stepping into the photo brings you not just to that single pair of people and what the photo shows but the entire scope of activity and life that must have been going on at that moment in Time Square is wonderful. Sure, there's a gag during the final credits the spins off this idea but it has the feeling of a throwaway, a clever little idea that was kicked around the screenwriters' table but, like the movie and some of the exhibits that come to life, was never really fleshed out this time around.

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