The Motion/Captured Review: ‘Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian’ sets a new gold standard in lazy

05.23.09 8 years ago 15 Comments

20th Century Fox

This is going to be a very, very, very negative review.  Let’s just get that out of the way.  If you need a simple binary yes or no answer, then mark me down for a “hell, no” and move on.  But if you’d like to help me puzzle through exactly how a smart and talented group of people (and Shawn Levy) manage to make a movie this terrible, then stick around.  This might take a while.

I didn’t care much for “Night At The Museum” when it was released, and there’s one passage from my original review that’s worth reprinting.

“It’s almost to the point where I wince when I see ‘Screenplay by Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant,’ and that bothers me.  I like those guys.  RENO 911 makes me laugh very hard, and I enjoyed them on THE STATE.  They are very funny people, no doubt about it.  But lately, if they are the credited writers on a mainstream comedy, it’s going to be cookie-cutter garbage.  HERBIE FULLY LOADED, the TAXI remake, THE PACIFIER, and now this… all I can think is that these guys are playing some elaborate practical joke on Hollywood, intentionally writing awful lowbrow crap just to see if they can get it greenlit.  As long as there’s a tell-all book down the road called VIN DIESEL AND A DUCK, OR HOW WE RUINED HOLLYWOOD COMEDY AND GOT RICH DOING IT, then all will be forgiven.”

It depresses me because that was sort of a half-joke when I wrote it in 2007, but these days, there’s nothing funny about it.  I know that Simon Kinberg and Scott Frank both also worked on the script for this sequel, so I’ll direct this to all four men, all of whom are people who I like and writers who have produced good work in the past:

What the hell is wrong with you?

[more after the jump]

One of the reasons I intensely disliked the first film was because it fell into one of the forms that I hate most in commercial films these days:  a hard-working father encounters some magical hoohaw that teaches him that all that hard work he’s doing to provide for his family ACTUALLY means he’s a giant asshole.  Because in today’s economy, with job definitions changing as radically as they do all the time, god forbid we portray someone who actually works hard as a good person or a decent character.  Nope.  Work = neglectful asshole.  That’s Hollywood, for you, where people routinely work 60 hour weeks.  Talk about self-loathing writ large, eh?  It seems like every comic has made at least one of these movies.  “Liar Liar.”  “Evan Almighty.”  “Bedtime Stories.”  “Click.”  “Imagine That.”  I know I’m missing a hundred easy examples, but for the most part, I reject those films and their empty, stupid moralizing, and I try to forget them completely as quickly as possible.  I think it’s a rotten, corrupt theme, built on a lie, and the films turn out to be built on some inane plot mechanic (“Wow, I’m glad we got this magic wristwatch that lets us turn back time!”) and crammed full of gooey phoney sentiment.  I thought the first “Night At The Museum” was a perfect example of that, goosed by a larger-than-average budget and a lot of silly slapstick.  It was one of those films that, halfway through, I recognized just wasn’t made for me, so I sort of sat out any conversation about it.

Then it made 11 billion at the box-office.  Somehow.

And so now here we are two years down the road, and the mega-budget sequel has Memorial Day weekend as a release slot.  That’s a pretty clear message from a studio that this is their big gun for this summer.  This is the one that Fox knows represents its best effort.

And that, more than anything, is what I find depressing about it.

I know how bad the development process is at 20th Century Fox. I’ve said enough about it at this point to just treat it as a given. But how do you take four smart people, throw them at one mega-budget sequel, and end up with a film that makes no sense, has no thematic point, and brings absolutely nothing interesting to the table? I didn’t just hate this film’s screenplay… I feel personally insulted that I sat in a theater and watched what I just watched. Does each and every person involved with this movie just assume that all viewers are profoundly stupid, that no one cares at all if there are rules for the magic or common sense in the behavior of the characters or any sort of internal logic at all?

At the start of the film, they establish that Larry (Ben Stiller) has moved on from the museum.  He’s running a gadget empire, like Ron Popeil, and shooting late-night informercials, and we see one of his underlings (Ed Helms, who is in a grand total of one scene before the film forgets he exists) tell him that they’re about to meet with WalMart about in-store placement.  That sounds like it’s going to be the ticking clock of the film, that big meeting, but the film forgets about it as soon as it sets it up, and by the time it would be happening, it’s completely irrelevant.  So why introduce any of that in the first place?

Larry drives by the Museum Of Natural History, right at closing time, and has an awkward antagonistic conversation with Ricky Gervais, once again totally wasted as Dr. McPhee, the guy who runs the museum.  And then, for some reason, even though Larry doesn’t work there anymore and the museum is closed and the exhibits are being readied for transport to storage and it’s obvious that McPhee isn’t a friend, Larry is just left in the museum lobby as everything gets closed up and shuttered and locked for the night.  They don’t even bother trying to explain why that would be.  I’m fairly sure I can’t just go hang around at places I used to work after hours, especially the ones I left under less-than-great-circumstances, and especially not something where there are millions of dollars of irreplaceable artifacts sitting around.  There’s evidently no new night guard, since Larry and the exhibits dance around and goof off all night without interruption, and right about the time they started moving the exhibits to the Smithsonian, it was obvious that nothing in this film is connected to any sort of recognizable human behavior at all.  It’s a good thing Stiller learned to be a good dad in the first film so he can spend all night standing around with reanimated dead people while his underage son spends the night alone in his New York apartment.

The contrivance this time is that all of the exhibits plus the magic Egyptian plate thingy that gives them their nightly life have been shipped to Washington for storage in the National Archives, destined to be replaced by interactive exhibits.  And, yeah, I see that ending coming, too, as soon as you say that.  But let’s pretend we’ve never seen a movie before and foreshadowing that incredibly clumsy isn’t a problem.  Introducing that magic Egyptian plate to the entire Smithsonian cluster of museums… that’s a recipe for hilarity, right?

I guess.  If you think a bunch of people and extras running from expensive set to expensive set while pointless special effects happen is funny, then this movie is going to light you up.  I just sat there, stunned at the spectacle of it and at how little actually happens.  Characterization is not only nonexistent… it’s illogical.  I can understand that if you bring the bones of a dinosaur back to life, they would behave like a dinosaur.  That makes sense.  But if you take an inanimate lump of wax that’s been fashioned and dressed to look like someone and you bring that to life, why does it retain the memories and personality of a dead person who never had anything to do with that wax?

“Oh, it’s just a movie for kids.”  Screw you, and screw that answer.  That’s insulting and lazy and, honestly, seems to me to suggest that anyone who says it is disqualified from every criticizing any story or logic point in any film ever made.  If you’re willing to just concede that anything that happens in any film is fine because it’s “just a movie,” then there is no common ground for us in discussing what works or what doesn’t.  I love seeing movies where the fantastic happens.  That’s one of the reasons I go to films… to see things that could never occur in the real world.  But it has to make SOME SORT of sense, even if it’s just internal logic.  And the rules seem to change from scene to scene here, and beyond that, they just don’t explain so much that after a while, all you can do is either surrender to the idiocy or reject it outright.

I’ll give Hank Azaria credit as Kahmunrah, the pharaoh bad guy this time out.  He uses a fey Boris Karloff lisp, and he’s genuinely funny in a few places.  But about the fifteenth time he makes an anachronistic pop culture reference, it got a lot less funny.  And Amy Adams continues her quest to charm each and every person alive in her role as Amelia Earhart.  First of all, whoever designed the aviator pants that fit her like a second skin should get a bonus, because that alone kept me watching.  Girl’s got a rocking heinie, and the movie seems determined to showcase that fact repeatedly.  It’s obvious that she takes the role seriously, and she tries to create some sense of connection to Stiller and to ground her ridiculous role in something like emotional truth.  In a way, it’s painful to watch her working as hard as she does, knowing that the film around her is such a train wreck.

But aside from those two performers, there’s nothing else I would recommend in the film.  Hilarious performers like Christopher Guest and Bill Hader are just stranded with nothing to do.  Expensive special effects clutter up the frame in almost every scene, but with no wit or whimsy to ignite them.  And Shawn Levy demonstrates a lack of any of the skills that mark a great filmmaker.  There’s no sense of energy within any of the scenes.  There’s nothing visually about the film that rises beyond perfunctory.  There’s no sense of joy in the work with the performers.  It is phoned-in and fake, and I would rather sit in front of a blank wall with my son for two hours than subject him to this garbage.

This is the sort of giant-budget filmmaking that makes me genuinely angry.  I may like some of the people involved, and maybe they’ll feel I’ve been to harsh to this moronic cereal box of a film, filled with crappy toys that will break the first time they’re played with and sugary lumps of empty calories that provide no sustenance at all, but I don’t care.  This is an affront, an indifferent belch of a film blown right in the face of America.  You made the first one a hit, though, so breathe it in and realize that rancid smell is the sum total of the filmmaker’s regard for you and your intelligence.

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