History is a fount for possible creative endeavors. Filled with myths and legends, heroes and villains, it’s the stuff of epics, the material for a million thought-provoking and heart-pounding adventures. So why then have the two high concept comedies surrounding the archiving of our past – Night at the Museum and the recently released Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian been so lame. Learning dates and facts in a community college course would be far more entertaining.
Granted, both entries do use famous figures from both national and international folklore to sell some antiseptic physical comedy. It does offer Ben Stiller in one of his two carefully calculated career modes (paycheck cashing vs. comedic firebrand) and it does give an array of equally talented costars (Amy Adams, Hank Azaria, Bill Hader) a chance to sell their own souls for the sake of some commercial cred. But the true scoundrel here is no unscrupulous businessmen or blasé bureaucrat. It’s director Shawn Levy, a hack who never saw a possible wistful family film conceit (Big Fat Liar, the pathetic Pink Panther remake) that he couldn’t mangle with his mediocre sense of cinematic skill.
There is really no faulting the premise. Like the toy shop that comes alive when the “CLOSED” sign is secured for the day, or the pet shop that plots revenge on its merciless owners, everyone has at one time or another wiled away a childhood afternoon wondering if the exhibits at their local Science and Industry get up and walk around once the final tourist has left the gift shop. The Night at the Museum movies jerryrig this idea into something about an ancient Egyptian talisman, group reanimation, a bumbling inventor turned museum nightwatchmen, and lots of jokes about biological functions and common sense vs. stupidity.
The latest installment sees Stiller’s Larry Daley trading in his profitable gig as a TV infomercial pioneer and pitchman to help out some of his old friends at the Natural Museum. Seems they are headed for storage at the famed Washington locale, and our hero just can’t let that happen. When they do arrive at their new home, a new wrinkle enters into the narrative mix. Seems Kahmunrah (Azaria), evil brother of previous film good guy Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), wants that fabled golden tablet so he can take over the world. It is up to Larry and new friends Emilia Earhart (Adams) and General Custer (Hader), along with old buddies Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson), Octavius (Steve Coogan), and Former President Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) to save the day.
This is what children’s distraction has come to in 2009 – and make no mistake about it, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is clearly aimed at a demographic not quite capable of making cognitive decisions of any kind for themselves. In the genre of crass, flat, by-the-book comedies, this title takes a small, stale cake. It’s dull when it should be amazing, rote when it should find way to rewrite the type’s bubble-headed tendencies. Tossing everything at the audience to see what sticks, Levy (along with returning salary scavengers, screenwriters Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant) overstuffs his film, making it nearly impossible to enjoy any one element. When he’s not trying for more and more F/X falderal, he’s letting his actors mug with equal abandon.
There are several low points in this preposterously dopey exercise: the himbo halfwit Jonas Brothers as marble cherubs, harmonizing all their dialogue (Yeesh!); Azaria, doing an accent that sounds like the illegitimate love child of Boris Karloff and Michael Palin’s Pontius Pilate from Life of Brian; the smart-alecky Dead End ’20s lingo tossed around like ripe cheese by Adam’s famed flygirl; the continued and inane squabbling between miniature misfits Jedediah and Octavius. Add in the occasional attempts at topical humor, the completely wasted efforts of sure things like Ricky Gervais, Christopher Guest, and Jonah Hill, and you’ve got an aesthetic car accident that even the most mindless lookie-loo wouldn’t slow down to experience.
Of course, no one involved in this film sees things in such a manner. The new Blu-ray release offers two commentary tracks (Levy alone, Lennon and Garant together) and both are fairly backslapping and self-serving. Enthusiasm runs high, as does endless production minutia. There are also numerous behind the scenes and interview featurettes which keep the EPK levels lamentable. Some are attempts at humor (caveman answering all questions with grunts, a collection of ‘famous last words’) while others take the standard making-of material and treat it as the last word of motion picture magic. Between deleted scenes and gag reels, looks at real life museums and the daily grind of “monkey wrangling”, the Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian package is informative if uneven. At least the near reference quality 1080p image and various Master Audio mixes are theatrical quality. Very little about the film itself, however, is.
And again, the fault must fall on the filmmaker’s shallow shoulders. Imagine what a talent like Spielberg or Burton could do with a concept like this. Visualize a Night at the Museum helmed by a visionary like Terry Gilliam or someone with certified post-modern panache like Zack Snyder and you understand the problem implicitly. Shawn Levy gives Tinseltown journeymen a bad name with his crude cinematic construction and even more unfettered lack of gifts. He’s a human personification of absolute luck, parlaying a career on the small screen into the eventual leap into theaters. Too bad it wasn’t off a high cliff.
Perhaps then we wouldn’t have to suffer through another atomic bomb as wholesome amusement like Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. As yet another in a long line of electronic babysitters, parents could probably do worse. Sadly, after taking in many of the current Hollywood samplings of same, it would be almost impossible to do much better. A film such as this should at least be likable. This second Night at the Museum takes history and, instead of treating it right, trashes it.