Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
In 2006, it was the coolest idea ever squandered by Hollywood: The American Museum of Natural History comes alive at night! Unfortunately, you could only experience it via an emotionally phony father-son sitcom ... and one that missed the real magic of the museum to boot.
As is always the case, the filmmakers 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 and screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon have 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 in an even bigger way. 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 — but must they sound as if they were actually written by 8-year-olds?
The height of Smithsonian's wit is an excruciatingly drawn-out bit in which Ben Stiller's museum guard and Hank Azaria's come-to-life ancient Egyptian pharaoh bicker like two kids in the backseat of a car. Though the glee with which Garant and Lennon's script overstretches a "joke" about another guard's name — his nametag says "Brendan," but he insists it's pronounced "Brundon" — suggests they're particularly proud of that, too.
You wouldn't think that with all the collections of the Smithsonian to play with, the filmmakers would have to strain themselves this hard to come up with something they deem clever. But that's not all they struggle with. Plausibility is another.
I don't mean the fantasy of the museum exhibits coming alive. I mean the narrative contortions they painfully attempt in order to get Stiller's Larry Daley and some of the more beloved exhibits — such as Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan's miniature warriors — back into the story. While I was shaking my head at their choices, I came up with a dozen simpler, more reasonable ways to make the concept work. It boggles the mind, trying to understand what the filmmakers were thinking.
Of course, now I'm the one being illogical. 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 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 moments of amusement for those of us older than 8? A few, just as in the first film. Some of them are clever appreciations of the way-cool stuff in the museum, some of them are moments of ingenious performance by Azaria, Adams, Wilson and Coogan, having fun with their fantastical characters. But those moments are accidental and entirely beside the point — a smart version of this movie would capitalize on them rather than 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.