Friday, January 29, 2010

History Comes Alive Again - Night at the Museum 2

off the shelves of the L.A. Library....

Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian (2009)

Well, the first one made money so we knew they’d do another.

Ben Stiller returns as Larry Daley, the ex-night guard for the New York Museum of Natural History. Now he creates and pedals gadgets in late night infomercials, like the Glow-in-the-Dark Flashlight, alongside people like George Foreman (here’s an idea: a Glow-in-the-Dark George Foreman Grill – I’ll take a 10% commission for each unit sold). Larry is successful but not happy.

When his golem-like friends at the museum – who come to life at night due to a magical tablet - including tiny odd couple Jedediah the cowboy (Owen Wilson) and Octavius the Roman (Steve Coogan) are boxed up and sent into long-term storage at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and run afoul of the uppity Egyptian pharaoh Kahmunrah, it’s up to Larry to save them. And perhaps learn a life lesson along the way.

From what I vaguely remember of the original film, this one comes across as a little better. Yes that’s damning the movie with faint praise, but what are ya gonna do?

Stiller plays straight man to all the crazy characters, from returnees Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) and Dexter the slap-happy capuchin monkey to newbies including Col. George Custer (Bill Hader) and Napoleon (Alain Chabat) . He’s partnered this time with Amelia Earhart, played with heart and spunk by the wonderful Amy Adams (seriously, does she ever turn in a bad performance?).

And speaking of wonderful, Hank Azaria as the evil (he’d say, “e-VEAL”) pharaoh Kahmunrah steals the movie, and rightly so. Azaria, one of the stellar voice cast of The Simpsons, is a riot, ad-libbing much of the time in a somewhat-more-masculine Boris Karloff voice, complete with slight lisp. Kahmunrah doesn’t really seem evil in the true sense of the word. Yes, he wants to rule the world and threatens to kill Larry and his friends, but it just seems to be a bad career choice that he’s made. It’s a refreshing change from, say, performances like Jeremy Irons as the evil wizard in Dungeons & Dragons.

One scene stands out in particular when Larry and Kahmunrah are facing off against each other. Kah wants three things: for Larry to give him the tablet, reveal the tablet’s secret code, and to NOT try to grab the hour glass in which he’s trapped Larry’s buddy Jedediah. Larry of course keeps grabbing for the hour glass and with each attempt Kah just gets more irritated with him: "I can't believe you just did that!" It’s a great scene and very funny, all because of Azaria. I just wish there were more scenes like it. A DVD extra shows Azaria trying out several different voices for the pharoah, including a very funny good ol' boy from Alabama (he riffed that he was on display at an Alabama Community College and that's where he learned to speak English. Genius!).

However Christopher Guest, an ICON for creating/inhabiting Nigel Tufel in Spinal Tap, and for coming up with original characters in the films in which he directs is extremely flat here as Ivan the Terrible. He just stands behind a giant beard and glares. He has no character or personality. Same thing for the often terrific Craig Robinson from The Office, who has a blink and you miss it cameo as a Tuskeegee airman. Why cast an amazing comedian for a non-comic walk on role?

And that’s the problem with the film: it’s ALMOST a good movie. It’s harmless and has a handful of funny scenes, but with some better dialogue/situations it could have been memorable. Case in point, Amelia Earhart is constantly using 1930s slang that contemporary guy Larry doesn’t understand. It’s cute at first and Amy Adams puts a lot of spunk into each line. But they act like that’s never been done before, except we know IT’S BEEN DONE IN EVERY TIME TRAVEL MOVIE EVER MADE AND ALL PERIOD HOLODECK ADVENTURES IN STAR TREK. It’s not a new idea in the least. Imagine what a Pixar movie would do with that type of fish out of water character. See what I mean?

If there’s nothing else on TV give Night at the Museum 2 a look-see. But first try really hard to find something better on, okay?

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