Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (review)

Do Not Touch

In 2006, it was the coolest idea ever squandered by Hollywood: The American Museum of Natural History comes alive at night! But you can only experience it via an emotionally phony father-son sitcom… one that misses the real magic of the museum to boot!
As is always the case with sequels, the filmmakers clearly felt the need to top themselves with their second outing, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. And I must concede that director Shawn Levy (The Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen) and screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (Balls of Fury, The Pacifier) have indeed done just that. They found an even cooler idea — the biggest, most diverse museum collection on the planet comes alive at night! — and they squandered it even worse: They turned it into a morass of Three Stooges-level slapstick and juvenile-style playground taunting. There’s nothing wrong with movies aimed at children — and only grade-schoolers will find this amusing on any sustained level — but must they sound as if they were actually written by eight-year-olds?

The height of Smithsonian’s wit is an excruciatingly drawn out bit in which Ben Stiller’s (Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Tropic Thunder) museum guard and Hank Azaria’s (Run, Fat Boy, Run, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story) come-to-life ancient Egyptian pharaoh bicker like two kids in the backseat of a car. “Mom, he’s on my side of the museum!” either of them could screech without sounding in the least out of place. Though the glee with which Garant and Lennon’s script overstretch a “joke” about another guard’s name — his nametag says “Brendan” but he insists it’s pronounced “Brundon,” and that that’s common — suggests they’re particularly proud of that, too.

You wouldn’t think that with all the collections of the Smithsonian to play with — and they stole famous works of art and historical objects from other museums around the world and pretended they’re on exhibit in Washington DC, too — the filmmakers would have to strain themselves this hard to come up with something they deemed clever, but there we are. But that’s not all they struggle with. Plausibility is another. I don’t mean the fantasy of the museums coming alive: I mean the narrative contortions they painfully attempt in order to get Stiller’s Larry Daley back into the story, and in order to get some of the more beloved exhibits — such as Owen Wilson (Marley & Me, The Darjeeling Limited) and Steve Coogan’s (Tropic Thunder, Hamlet 2) miniature warriors — from New York to DC so they can be part of the new action. While I was shaking my head at the illogic of their choices, I came up with a dozen simpler, more reasonable ways to make the concept work that wouldn’t have required such absurdities. It boggles the mind trying to understand what the filmmakers were thinking in crafting their story as they did.

Of course, now I’m the one being illogical. No thought at all needed to be given to this, and we should probably be surprised that even the barest nod was given to making any kind of story sense at all. Look, it’s Hank Azaria as a vicious pharaoh, and it’s funny cuz he’s lisping! Look. it’s Amy Adams (Doubt, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) as Amelia Earhart, and it’s funny cuz… well, she’s not really funny at all. Oh, she’s cute and spunky, but she’s perhaps the most bizarre love interest for a Hollywood hero ever: she’s made of wax. Weird.

Are there individual moments of amusement for those of us older than eight? A few, just as there were in the first film: some of them are clever appreciations of the way-cool stuff that’s in the museum, some of them are moments of ingenious performance by Azaria and Adams and Wilson and Coogan having fun with such fantastical characters. But those moments are accidental and entirely beside the point — a smart version of this movie would capitalize on them instead of appearing not to notice them at all. Instead, it’s all monkeys slapping Stiller… again, a tedious repetition of a “joke” that wasn’t funny the first time around. There may be magic in this world in which museums can come to life, but there’s no magic in this movie.

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