On Mall, a Sight at the Museum
Stars Come Out for 'Smithsonian' Film Premiere

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

Considering that the Smithsonian has hosted the world premiere of a Hollywood movie exactly, well, never, last night's red-carpet event for the new "Night at the Museum" film went perfectly to form.

Stars? Oh, yeah, there were plenty of them. Practically the entire cast turned up at the Air and Space Museum for the carpet-stroll and screening: Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais, Owen Wilson, Hank Azaria, plus actors who play Napoleon, Al Capone and Attila the Hun in the movie.

Paparazzi? Yep, the place was crawling with 'em. Head-set wearing handlers to keep the press herd in its velvet-roped corral ("That's all! No more questions for Mr. Stiller!")? Got those, too. Giddy fans? Yes, but only outside, safely packed behind the barricades on Jefferson Drive.

Technically, last night's screening wasn't really the world premiere of "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," despite its billing. The sequel -- which stars Stiller as a security guard -- had its public unveiling Tuesday at a media screening in London (it opens in theaters next Friday). For that matter, it wasn't exactly a "red carpet" event, either. More like a blue-gray thing, and one well-trod by the footfalls of a million tourists.

Nevertheless, the event, like the movie itself, amounts to priceless PR for the Smithsonian. The spectacle was covered by Canadian, French, Japanese, Brazilian and Mexican TV, plus all the usual domestic suspects ("Entertainment Tonight," "Extra," People, etc.) and a few unusual ones (Comcast SportsNet?).

After the first "Night at the Museum" grossed $575 million in late 2006 and 2007, boosting attendance at the New York's American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian put aside its long-standing ban on commercial filmmaking and gave Twentieth Century Fox the green light to film on its premises. Stiller and director Shawn Levy spent four days shooting inside Air and Space and the Smithsonian Castle last May (the rest of the movie was shot in New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver).

Bottom line: The Smithsonian became the setting for, and the name of, a film destined to be a giant come-to-Washington postcard for family audiences worldwide.

If anything, the love from Hollywood was mutual last night. Levy said the Smithsonian was his first choice for the sequel. "There's nothing that can compare to the scale of the Smithsonian and the diversity of its exhibits," he said last night. "As a backdrop, it's got everything: pop culture, art, technology, history. It gave us a lot of possibilities to play with."

Williams, looking fine after recovering from emergency surgery eight weeks ago (he confessed that he sometimes feels like grazing now that his damaged heart valve has been repaired with cow parts), might have been the most enthusiastic Smithsonian supporter of all. "Every time I come here, I want to touch everything, but they won't let me," he said, admiring one of Amelia Earhart's planes. "From the moment I walked in, I become 6 again."

The Smithsonian's welcome to the Hollywood crowd had its limits, of course. A climactic scene in the movie -- in which a villain steals the Wright Brothers' Flyer and flies it out of the museum's atrium -- wasn't about to happen with the real deal, in the real museum. But that's what a re-created Air and Space atrium set in Vancouver, and copious amounts of computer-assisted manipulation, were for.

Stiller, shaggy-haired and pint-size, pronounced himself pleased with the final cut, which was screened last night to dignitaries, including Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and members of Congress. "It was a big deal to shoot here," Stiller said. "There's nothing like this in the entire world. We can re-create a lot of it, but you have to have the real thing."

Amy Adams, wearing an asymmetrical, lilac-colored gown, also had praise for the institution, even though none of her scenes (she plays Earhart) were filmed in Washington. Adams managed to look twinkly and composed while patiently answering the same question over and over from the jostling newsies: What's it like to play Earhart? "Interesting," she said brightly, time and again.

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