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Friday, July 31, 2009

'Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian'

Skillfully failing to get laughs from the world's best funnymen

What to say about "Night At The Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" (opening locally as "Night Museum 2"), the latest outbreak of Hollywood sequelitis? Well, I can tell you with all confidence that leading man Ben Stiller is just as funny here as he was in "Meet The Parents 2" or "Madagascar 2." Or that director/producer Shawn Levy has made a comic gem all the equal of his previous masterpieces, "Cheaper By The Dozen 2" and "The Pink Panther 2."

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian Rating: (2 out of 5)
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Wow, look at those SFX: Ben Stiller and Amy Adams in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" © 2009 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Director: Shawn Levy
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: English
Opens Aug. 13, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Am I being too subtle? It takes a truly special talent to put Steve Coogan ("I'm Alan Partridge"), Ricky Gervais ("The Office"), Hank Azaria ("The Simpsons"), Christopher Guest ("Spinal Tap"), and Robin Williams in the same film and barely even draw a laugh.

But that's par for the course these days with big-budget Hollywood comedies, where nothing matters but a thick coating of digital effects and just enough clever bits to flesh out a 60-second trailer. What's the point in actually working on a script to shape jokes and sharpen up the comic timing when you can have, say, the Lincoln Memorial statue jump out of its chair and kick the butts of an army of undead instead?

Indeed, the whole premise of the "Night At The Museum" series is thus: Visit the world's most fascinating museums . . . and trash them! This is a cheap shot, but is it any wonder that the culture that holds this up as entertainment is the same one that conquered Baghdad and had its soldiers look on bemusedly while the treasures of Babylon were looted from the city's museums?

As then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it at the time: "Stuff happens." And I suppose that's true of the "Night At The Museum" sequel as well. Stuff happens. Things flash and explode and come to life and race down the halls and smash through the walls, and if anything that moves on a flickering screen holds your mothlike interest, then I suppose this will do. Or you could try a screensaver instead. But if you actually excpect a comedy to be, well, funny, then "Battle of the Smithsonian" will disappoint. It's the kind of film where they think "my bad" is a punchline, and that's never a good sign.

Stiller's character, Larry Daley, is back from the first film, but he's traded in his museum guard job at NYC's Museum of Natural History for a lucrative career selling gadgets through TV infomercials. Larry goes back to visit the museum one last time, since they're renovating and packing up the exhibits that magically came to life in the first film. Larry is then berated by wax figures and miniatures who complain he "wasn't there for them," cueing the painfully de rigueur emotional "issue" that Larry will have to solve in the next 90 minutes.

Teddy Roosevelt, Attila the Hun, diorama cowboy Jebediah, space monkey Abel and friends are all shipped to storage in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington , D.C, but all hell breaks loose when that magic Egyptian tablet is shipped with them. It brings to life the villainous Kahmunrah, a wannabe pharaoh who plans to raise his evil minions from the underworld. He's joined by reanimated versions of Napoleon Bonaparte, Ivan the Terrible and Al Capone, making this seem more like the "Battle at Madame Tussaud's." (Although the film plays fast and loose with its location; all sorts of non-Smithsonian art, like Rodin's "The Thinker," is thrown into the mix.)

Larry goes to help his friends, and he's joined by Amelia Earhart, played by Amy Adams, who acts like she learned about the 1930s by watching Roxie in "Chicago." Much scrambling after the magical tablet results, with everyone from Einstein bobble-head dolls to Jeff Koons' balloon dog joining the fray. There are motorcycle chases, airplane rides and giant squid attacks, as Levy realizes every 5-year-old's dream — turning a stodgy museum experience into a theme-park ride.

In the film's climactic battle, tiny cowboy figurine Jebediah gives Larry an inspirational speech, telling him the museum pieces didn't call for help because they needed him, but rather, "I called because you needed us." Ask not how a toy cowboy got his hands on a cell phone, but rather just gag at this absolutely phony attempt at emotional resonance.

If you get to the end of "The Wizard of Oz" or "Spirited Away," you feel something real when the human character has to leave her magical friends behind, you sense the bond there. In "Night At The Museum," the bonding feels as convincing as a politician promising no new taxes — it's just something he's gotta say. Insulting, insipid, and entirely insincere, "Night At The Museum" sums up pretty much all that's wrong with the SFX-uber-alles approach of Hollywood today.

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