Cliched `Museum' loses its way after priceless start

Review C+

December 22, 2006|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

Night at the Museum offers a great conceit - that every night at New York's Museum of Natural History, all the statues and mummies and dioramas and dinosaur bones come to life. Too bad the filmmakers couldn't do more with the idea.

The sad truth is that the film squanders almost all of its inspiration in the first 20 minutes or so, as newly hired security guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) finds out just what he's up against. There's a bone-fetching Tyrannosaurus, an Attila the Hun with an affinity for rending people's arms, a monkey pickpocket, a gum-chewing Easter Island head, some Neanderthals with a bit too much curiosity about fire and hordes of tiny Romans and cowboys who refuse to get along with each other. Funny stuff, and Daley's first encounter with all the bizarre goings-on is priceless.

But director Shawn Levy (Cheaper By the Dozen) and screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon don't know where to go after that. They could have turned the film into an exercise in supreme silliness (think Monty Python), or perhaps a whip-smart exercise in post-modern irony and absurdity (Ghostbusters, for example). Instead, they resort to a handful of timeworn movie cliches and a lot of feel-good moral platitudes, leaving the audience with a movie that is, perhaps, enjoyable enough but could have been so much more.

The movie's troubles start almost immediately, with an opening that finds its inspiration not in any classic comedy, but in Kramer vs. Kramer. Stiller's Daley is a divorced dad who has trouble holding down a job; his understanding but increasingly impatient ex-wife (Kim Raver) warns him to get another job soon, lest he lose visitation rights to their son (Jake Cherry).

A desperate Daley heads straight to the employment agency and begs for a job, any job. (His caseworker is played by Stiller's real-life mother, Anne Meara, a seasoned pro who strikes just the right tone of sympathetic exasperation.) What he gets is an interview at the museum, where he's hired on a trial basis to replace three old codgers who are about to be laid off.

The three - played by Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs - warn Daley to watch out but don't tell him why. Their reasons become clear, however, when the sun goes down and the new guy finds himself face-to-face with a thirsty Tyrannosaurus skeleton.

Several chases through the museum and a series of pratfalls ensue. Seems there's an ancient Egyptian tablet in the museum that brings everything to life once the sun goes down, then restores their statuary selves when the sun comes up. Daley's job - as explained to him by museum muse Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), whose statue is among those coming to life - is to simply ensure that nothing re-animated actually leaves the museum, lest they turn to dust in the morning.

The real challenge for Daley comes one night when the Egyptian tablet is stolen, and he must retrieve it in time for everything to right itself when the sun comes up.

It would have been fun if Levy and crew had let the museum animate itself slowly, or at least let Daley's awareness of just what he's up against unfold more gradually, letting the humor build. Instead, they throw everything onto the screen at once, establishing a haphazard pace that's more frenetic than funny. Given how much of the rest of the film is excess padding - including the always-welcome Carla Gugino as a museum docent with little to do except explain world history to Daley - it would have been a simple matter to let the humor develop rather than just appear.

Still, Night at the Museum is not without its pleasures. The Tyrannosaurus is a great visual, as is the talking Easter Island head (voiced by gravel-voiced Brad Garrett). Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan are a stitch as warring diorama figures who aren't going to be bossed around by any giant guard. The film could have used more of Ricky Gervais as the museum boss, who seems congenitally unable to finish a sentence. And any film that provides work for actors like Meara, Van Dyke, Rooney and Cobbs is performing a valuable public service. (Here's betting Stiller, the son of comedic royalty himself, had something to do with that.)

But too much of the film boils down to easy, formulaic laughs. Daley's ex-wife, for example, is married to a bond trader, and some cheap laughs are elicited at the poor guy's expense, since he wears a telephone earpiece and has multiple phones hanging from his belt. Is it a rule somewhere, that fathers in Hollywood comedies must always be free spirits who look down on people with real jobs?

The film also retreats far too readily into warmedy territory - shots of poor Daley, frustrated that he can't impress his son, or shots of his son, frustrated that he can't depend on his father, or shots of just about anybody else in the cast, feeling sorry for somebody. Such cheap sentimentality seems like a waste of time, especially when there's a living Tyrannosaurus skeleton running around.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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