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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Living artifacts

Ben Stiller is a strong anchor for this unstable franchise

Posted on Thu, May 21, 2009 at 4:00 AM

***
Night at the Museum:Battle of the Smithsonian
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Rated: PG
Cast: Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Hank Azaria, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan
Director: Shawn Levy
WorkNameSort: Night at the Museum:Battle of the Smithsonian
Our Rating: 3.00

The first installment of Night at the Museum may have been a pithy, middle-of-the-road, grade-B comedy lark with grade-A special effects, but when it grossed a half-billion dollars worldwide, its days as an inoffensive guilty pleasure were over.

Now, the history-comes-alive scenario created by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (the genius duo responsible for the TV shows The State and Reno 911!) has been upgraded, trading safe comedy legends like Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney for an army of today's funniest creative minds: Hank Azaria, Christopher Guest, Bill Hader, Jonah Hill, and the returning Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais, all of whom absolutely electrify the screen with their presence. That's a good thing, since this high-energy, special-effects bonanza could easily interrupt itself with abstract conversational asides for as long as the editor allows.

Those asides, and surprisingly Ben Stiller himself, save Smithsonian from its earnest, parent-friendly, Bill and Ted-history-for-dummies setup. Academy Award nominee Amy Adams approaches unwatchability with her Blanchett-as-Hepburn-in-The Aviator imitation of Amelia Earhart; her lack of chemistry and dumb flapper-speak (which she thankfully eases off after Stiller's character meta-chastises her for using the word 'jimmy-jacked,â?� which he says 'sounds made up, even for youâ?�) nearly sinks the production. And in another bizarre choice, returning Museum alum Owen Wilson as cowboy Jedediah Smith, the heart of the first film, is miniaturized in relevance as well as actual size this time. His entire arc involves his imprisonment, first in a shipping container (along with nearly everyone else from the first film, a not-so-subtle hand-wash), then on the losing end of an hourglass which threatens to off him if Stiller doesn't retrieve some password or another for Azaria's evil purposes.

Stiller's Larry Daley has become a rich and famous as-seen-on-TV inventor since the first film and, we're told halfheartedly, has lost his sense of purpose. If, by Jedediah's predicament, director Shawn Levy is suggesting Daley has a heart of glass, trapped and endangered, he chose a distracting embodiment; the troubled Owen Wilson's marginalization can be uncomfortable to watch at times.

When the original characters are let out of the box for a final battle that utterly demolishes the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. ' if you notice that no alarms are tripped by these events, then this isn't the movie for you ' Smithsonian whips itself into a kind of frenzied exhilaration that's both fun and funny.

Combined with certain exchanges that seem to take place in another movie entirely ' Jonah Hill's small-dose brilliance is perfectly channeled here ' the film does succeed as broad entertainment. If the makers can dig a bit deeper next time and find the readily available pathos within a story about museum playthings that can only come alive when nobody's watching (see: Toy Story 2), then this franchise could be worthy of preservation.

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