Second 'Night' Delights ... in Drips and Drabs
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
It seemed a little hokey to schedule a screening of "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" at my local Museum of History and Industry, but try laying that buzz-kill on the excited kids who actually cheered with delight when they heard that, post-film, they could explore the exhibits by flashlight. Still, you can bet delight won't come into it for most critics of this frenetic follow-up to Ben Stiller's 2006 megahit.
The critics who carp will be right ... just not entirely relevant.
As a movie, "Night" 2.0 is a total mess, just like its predecessor. Clueless about how to shape and pace a comedy, director Shawn Levy simply throws everything at the wall in hopes that something will stick. (Big helpings of CGI spell salvation for many an untalented hack.). If you thought security guard Larry Daley's adventures in New York's Museum of Natural History were all over the map -- and not in a good way -- multiply that chaos by 19, the number of individual museums under the Smithsonian umbrella. (Fits Teddy Roosevelt's key to happiness: physical exercise!)
The team that scripted (ha!) the first "Night" are back, their writing just as lame as ever. The wobbly hook on which they hang this latest museum tsuris is the replacement of Larry's "friends" -- Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson), Octavius (Steve Coogan), T-Rex, et al. -- by interactive exhibits, hi-tech holograms far niftier than mere waxworks and old bones. Daley (Stiller) himself, now a successful inventor of stuff like glow-in-the-dark flashlights, has lost his zest for life -- or, in the parlance of a certain '30s heroine, his "moxie."
Oh, to resurrect the red-hot scribes who crafted the glittering, machine-gun patter of classic screwball comedy like "Bringing Up Baby." As hyper-spunky proto-feminist Amelia Earhart, Amy Adams works too hard to perk up her slang-slinging dialogue. The flygirl's opening gambit -- "Where's the rumpus, Ace?" -- hits the mark, but, unmodulated, spunk and overamped verbiage get old fast. And while Adams lunges through the movie on speed, deadpan Stiller drags, as though stoked on Valium.
But it's really beside the point to treat "Battle of the Smithsonian" like an actual movie, rather than a spotty night at the Comedy Club, or even a '30s-style revue featuring the likes of Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges. As your emcee, I'd advise you to just sit back and get your laughs from one comedy set piece or another, not in any organic order, but as happy accidents among the movie's hugger-mugger.
First up is a hilarious pitch-and-catch between Stiller and Jonah Hill, playing an officious Smithsonian security guard. The zippy back-and-forth regarding what will happen to Stiller if he dares to touch an exhibit actually possesses a comedic arc, from two overgrown kids playing tough to major bonding over cool flashlight moves. Fast, funny and fleeting.
Then there's Hank Azaria, as Kahmunrah, evil brother of the sweet pharaoh Ahkmenrah from "Night" No. 1. No way to prepare you for Azaria's totally committed, indeed inspired, channeling of Boris Karloff ("The Mummy") as a lisping dementoid driven by the usual delusions about ruling the world. (Haven't seen Azaria this comedically possessed since his rib-splitting gay stylings in "The Birdcage.")
Azaria rules the movie, alternating between melodramatic horror-movie bellowing -- "I have come back to life!"-- and hail-fellow-well-met smarminess: "I can't tell you how terrific it is to meet you all," fanboy-ing Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon and Al Capone, whom he's called up to rub out Stiller and Company. It's like jump-cutting from Frankenstein monster to petulant swish and back again. There's a little of both in a fall-down-funny volley with Stiller that riffs -- from low to loud, calm to foaming at the mouth -- on "You will not say another word. You will not cross this line. And you will give me the tablet and the code."
I'd be remiss if I didn't single out two other comedic "turns": Bill Hader of "SNL" as Gen. Custer ("My hair is currency in some parts of Europe"), mashing any recognizable pronunciation of "Sacajawea" somewhere between his uvula and his salivary glands. And the inimitable Steve Coogan, as a miniaturized Octavius, charging into battle astride a most ferocious steed ... well, you have to see it to believe it!
Coming to life during this second "Night" are such artworks as Rodin's "The Thinker," Degas' "Little Dancer," and Koons' "Balloon Dog Red," as well as some famous paintings and photos. It's almost magical when Amelia Earhart and Larry Daley escape into "The Kiss," that iconic shot of a sailor bussing a nurse in Times Square at the end of WWII. Suddenly abroad in that lost black-and-white world, where love and death mattered, you feel the authentic power of the past, just what museums exist to illuminate and celebrate.
Let's hope that, besides raking in oodles of money at the box office, "Night" No. 2 inspires whole tribes of kids to arm themselves with Larry Daley's ultra-cool flashlight for sleepovers among the treasures of the Smithsonian." Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.