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Mummies and dummies
May 27, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
So I read recently that Ben Stiller will receive MTV’s highest movie prize, the Generation Award, in ceremonies Sunday.
Speaking as a member of the generation that got all this talk about generations started in the first place, hearing about Ben’s prize made me realize it’s not our g-g-g-g-generation we’re talking about anymore.
Not to take anything away from Stiller’s illustrious career. It has made him the stealth weapon of the movie comedy world. He may look like a dweeb in front of the cameras, but as a writer and director, he’s awfully smart behind them. His movies makes Hollywood’s favorite sound — ka-ching! — very loudly at the box office.
As though to prove the wisdom of the MTV choice, Stiller’s silly new “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” knocked off what everyone expected to be the Memorial Day weekend blockbuster, “Terminator Salvation.”
Go figure. In matters of Ben Stiller, I’m somewhere between Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, who co-starred with him in “Meet the Fockers.” I’m not as suspicious as his prospective father-in-law, the crusty ex-CIA agent played by De Niro who wanted to attach electrodes to his nodes and put him on the polygraph. But I’m not as enthusiastic as his touchy-feely dad, played by Hoffman, who had a whole wall of participation ribbons to commemorate Ben’s sad-sack mediocrity.
Considering that the first “Night at the Museum” was inspired by a 1996 McDonalds Super Bowl commercial about a Tyrannosurus skeleton hankering for the night watchman’s french fries, the basic concept feels like screenwriting’s answer to Hamburger Helper.
Now that we’re on to the sequel, Stiller wisely surrounds himself with more comic geniuses per capita than any movie in recent history. The jolly band includes Ben’s bud, Owen Wilson, along with Hank Azaria, Bill Hader, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Christopher Guest, Robin Williams and Jonah Hill.
Amy Adams is along, too, stealing whatever scene she’s in with her plucky attitude. She plays Amelia Earhart, with a thirst for adventure, a vocabulary full of words like “moxie,” and a way of making a leather flying helmet and slacks look sexy.
With all this talent around, there can’t help but be chuckles. But with all this talent around, you can’t help but wonder why there aren’t more of them.
What there is of a story is set in both New York’s venerable Museum of Natural History and Washington’s remarkable complex of Smithsonian museums that dot the Capitol Mall. The plot is based on the belief — more widespread than you might think — that museum relics are really alive. They just hold real still whenever anybody’s watching.
From mummies to dummies, from ancient skeletons to little stuffed rodents, museums are more like catalogues than novels. Which might explain why the writers don’t put more effort into tying things together or trying to make sense out of them.
Under the pretext of sending Stiller on a mission to free all the relics from permanently being stored away from public view, the whole thing feels like the Beatles’ old Sergeant Pepper cover, come to life. An Egyptian pharaoh or Roman gladiator may duke it out with Theodore Roosevelt or Al Capone for dominance of the dustbin of history. A chorus of Albert Einstein dolls and the statue from the Abraham Lincoln Memorial are just dying to get into the act, too.
Granted, folks like Azaria, Coogan, Williams and Stiller himself know how to get the most out of throwaway lines. But still, the whole thing feels less like screenwriting than clinical diaries from patients suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder.
Director Shawn Levy knows how to get the most from computer-generated sight gags and writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon put the “high” in high-concept. But there’s something wistful in the memory that once upon a time, museums didn’t need special effects. The funkier their dioramas, stuffed critters and shrunken heads from faraway lands may have been, the more wonder and imagination they generated.
With their echoey corridors and dusty displays, museums weren’t old-fashioned by accident, but by choice. They were monuments to old-fashioned. They were the definition of old-fashioned; they were the fort to protect it.
They were places to go to discover all the things you didn’t know. They reminded you of how big the world was, how small you were, and just how exciting that combination could be.
That’s the display I couldn’t locate in this “Night at the Museum.”
I must have been in the wrong wing.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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