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PR Victory May Be at Hand, But Creatively, 'Battle' Is Lost

By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 22, 2009

It's not often that a critic gets the chance to praise a beloved local fixture making a grand Hollywood debut. But to answer the question foremost on the minds of Washingtonians: The Smithsonian Institution gives a fantastic performance as the Smithsonian Institution in Ben Stiller's new family comedy, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian."

Just as the original "Night at the Museum" reportedly increased attendance at New York's American Museum of Natural History by 20 percent, so should this sequel make the National Air and Space Museum an even more impenetrable mess of pint-size hordes than it was before.

No doubt the cash-strapped Smithsonian will be glad for the exposure, and parents should be happy, too. After all, a couple of inexpensive visits to the museums on the Mall might keep you away from pedestrian family movies like "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian." This time, the museum sparkles, but the movie's awfully dull.

Last seen wowing his son by handling the late-night shenanigans at the Museum of Natural History, onetime sad-sack night guard Larry Daley (Stiller) is now the BlackBerry-addicted CEO of a growing gadget company. On one of his infrequent visits to the museum, he learns that most of his moonlight pals -- Dexter the capuchin, Sacajawea and belligerent tiny cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson), among them -- are being crated up and shipped to Washington, to be replaced by new interactive exhibits.

Larry, made to feel guilty about abandoning his friends to become an infomercial king, travels down to the Smithsonian to rescue them, and soon the inhabitants of the institution's 19 museums are leaping to life.

Well, some of them. The movie's action is mostly restricted to the Smithsonian Castle and the Air and Space Museum, which means we don't get to see Jedediah's mind get blown by the National Museum of the American Indian. Wisely, director Shawn Levy and screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon fudge things somewhat, so that the movie's Castle and the (mostly imaginary) vaults underneath are jammed with photogenic artifacts and artworks, including a giant octopus, Rodin's "Thinker" and "American Gothic." Plenty of pieces from the American History Museum make appearances, too, from Archie Bunker's chair to Oscar the Grouch.

If all this makes the movie sound overstuffed and frantic, it actually isn't -- in fact, it's too bad it's not a little more overstuffed and frantic. Out of a museum collection of more than 136 million pieces, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" -- such an unwieldy title! Let's just call it "NATM:BOTS" -- picks out perhaps 30 to bring to life, and drives its jokes home with aggressive elbows to the ribs.

Three flying cherubs set loose from a Renaissance fountain, for example? They don't just croon love songs, they sing "My Heart Will Go On." In the voices of the Jonas Brothers. Again and again. A better movie might have incorporated the magic more organically; after all, it's the underplayed, throwaway jokes, like the giant Jeff Koons balloon puppy bouncing around in the background, that made me laugh.

Stiller, on the other hand, underplays a little too much. Larry is a far more confident man than he was in the first movie, which is great for his psychic well-being but bad for comedy. It's not nearly as much fun to watch Stiller coolly face down a dozen spear-toting warriors as it was to watch him screaming and running from a T. rex.

Coming off much better is Amy Adams, who plays irrepressible adventurer Amelia Earhart, a spunky sidekick prone to Jazz Age banter ("You haven't been able to keep your cheaters off my chassis since we met!"). If the producers are smart they'll sign up Adams for a spinoff posthaste.

Bill Hader has a nice turn as Gen. Custer, spurring his men to battle with confidence and near-total incompetence. And Hank Azaria, as Pharaoh Kahmunrah, makes a singularly unthreatening villain.

Beyond these major roles, "NATM:BOTS" is filled with cameos from beloved comedy figures given almost nothing to do: Christopher Guest growls a bit as Ivan the Terrible, and Jonah Hill gets one painfully unfunny scene as a hapless guard. Ricky Gervais classes things up for five minutes, then disappears. Mindy Kaling and Ed Helms hardly even appear at all.

The good thing about a movie as huge as "NATM:BOTS" is that it's the kind of endeavor that can single-handedly revive the economy, from those comedians who can buy a used car with their one-day paychecks to the almost 500 credited effects artists who've spent a year slaving at computers, attaching seamless visuals to wan jokes.

The bad thing is, you'll need to issue a little corrective instruction to your kids afterward. The Lincoln Memorial is not right next to Air and Space. Pursuing an entrepreneurial career does not necessarily mean that your friends will be packed into crates while you're not looking. And museums can be fun -- more fun than movies, no less -- even if you don't get to crash the Wright brothers' plane through a stained-glass window.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild action and brief language.

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