Review: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (*½)

Confusion actually led me to this film. I had intended to take my daughter to see Up, but the listing I followed to the cinema apparently had yet to be updated. Once we were inside, looking up at the board, I couldn’t simply take her hand and say, “Too bad, we’re going home.”

Especially after she saw that Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian was playing. Score one for soulless target marketing.

The script, penned by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911!) was, to say the least, lackluster: slipshod story construction, shallow character development, and cheap comic gags abound. If anything characterizes Hollywood’s low aim, it is these enterprise or “franchise” films. Night at the Museum is all about merchandising and brand recognition. Actual content is an afterthought. Still, though, the prospect of good money pushes these projects forward; after all, they got three films out of Problem Child and Look Who’s Talking alike. Both projects were throughly abysmal, and leaves one wondering how bad the third Museum film can possibly be. With any luck, bad enough to be shelved.

But money attracts cast, and what a cast, indeed. Ben Stiller put on his own usual performance, although in this case it was dependent upon, and often overshadowed by his fellows. Jonah Hill (Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) played a single scene and fit very well with Stiller’s presence. Indeed, without Hill, the scene would likely have fallen flat. Owen Wilson and Robin Williams did as well as they could with what they had to work with. Hank Azaria nearly carried the film, playing a weak starring role to the hilt, though the immediate presence of Christopher Guest should not be discounted. French mainstay Alain Chabat was at least mildly amusing. And, of course, Ricky Gervais offered his best for a paradoxically quiet and dignified minor role. If the script wasn’t so horrible, perhaps I would have recognized Eugene Levy’s voice behind the Albert Einstein bobbleheads.

The big surprise was Amy Adams (Charlie Wilson’s War), who turned in the most earnest performance, bringing much-needed charisma to an otherwise shallow characterization of Amelia Earhart. It should be said, though, that despite the two-dimensional characterization, Adams’ lines in the film are perhaps the bright spot of Garant and Lennon’s script, and she plays them perfectly.

While it is not the ultimate indictment of the film, it is perhaps the most telling: How can you waste Caroll Spinney as Oscar the Grouch? And yet, Garant and Lennon managed just that, including the Sesame Street icon for the sake of a brief smile from the children while parents choked on their horror.

I should say that the upside is that my daughter enjoyed the film, although that could be as much the Red Vines, fruit punch, and the cinema experience as anything else. At six, I expect her to be restless in the theatre, but it was unexpected to glance over and find her slumping, legs tucked up under her on the seat, waiting for something to happen.

Other notable appearances are an uncredited appearance from Ed Helms of the Daily Show, but I only know that from reading the cast list at IMDB; I completely missed his presence in the film, and wonder if maybe he wasn’t an off-camera voice. Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond, Ratatouille), whose long resume includes a good deal of voice work, reprised his role as the voice of an idiotic Easter Island stone head. George Foreman made an appearance, as well, in a good-natured satire of his work as an infomercial pitch man. Of course, nobody’s surprised that the champ would show up; offer him money, and he’ll take it. Perhaps that is idiomatic of both the Night at the Museum franchise and Hollywood alike.

For all that talent, the film was nearly a total disaster, redeemed only by Adams, Azaria, and my daughter’s claim to enjoy the film. To the other, if you enjoyed the first one—I didn’t see it—you’ll probably have a fine time with this one. That’s kind of how it works. Or, at least, so Hollywood hopes. One and a half of four stars.

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