Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Carla Gugino, Kim Raver, Ricky Gervais, Paul Rudd, Steve Coogan
Ben Garant, Daniel Goldin
20th Century Fox
Fresh off his hilariously awful remake of "The Pink Panther," director Shawn Levy turns his attention towards ruining an illustrated children's book, "Night at the Museum" by Milan Trenc.
The book is a charming and entertaining mix of historical figures, wild beasts and funny, frightening situations aimed squarely at a younger, preteen audience.
"Night at the Museum," the film, is a charmless and boring mix of historical figures, wild beasts and unbelievable, unexplainable and yet oddly predictable situations that seems aimed at no one in particular, though its PG rating would indicate a desire to attract that family crowd while on Christmas break.
The film stars Ben Stiller as Larry Daley, a divorced father of a 10-year-old (Jake Cherry) and a general screw-up whose primary claim to notoriety is inventing the "snapper." (Don't ask, it's not worth chasing. Remember, I already told you the humor is predictable here).
In an effort to avoid losing yet another apartment and, in turn, maintain already minimal custody arrangements with his ex-wife (Kim Raver) Larry takes a job as the night watchman at the Museum of Natural History after a quick interview with an about to be replaced trio of night watchmen (museum cutbacks, ya know!) played by Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs.
All of this is really nothing more than a cheap, hole-filled set-up for special-effects...lots and lots and lots of special effects.
Did I mention there are special effects in the film?
If you've seen the trailer, then you've already seen one of the coolest effects, that of a Tyrannosaurus Rex drinking from a water fountain (which is, in fact, pretty cool!). In fact, the character of the T-Rex may be the most developed character in the entire film.
He's downright cuddly.
There are other beasts, of course. We have a capucin monkey with a playful attitude, lions, elephants, cavemen and birds galore.
Then, there are the historical figures featuring, of course, a variety of the usual Stiller film cameos such as Octavius (Steve Coogan), a wild west guy (Owen Wilson), an Easter Island head (voiced by Brad Garrett) and, in the film's only solid performance, Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams). We also meet such figures as Sacajawea, Attila the Hun, a mummified pharaoh (Rami Malek in a brief, yet solid performance) and the the list goes on.
To further explain the plot or how the film resolves itself is irrelevant in much the way the visually similar "Jumanji" had a long sense forgotten storyline. For the very select few who actually enjoy "Night at the Museum," it's not going to be about the film's dialogue, characters, storyline or happy ending...it'll be about the animal characters that are funnier than the humans and the often impressive special effects.
By the end of the night (actually the 3rd night), suffice it to say that Larry will impress his son, nab those "had to be up to something" night watchmen he replaced, flirt a little bit with the Sacajawea obsessed museum tour guide (Carla Gugino) and even gain the approval of his constantly disapproving boss (Ricky Gervais, in a performance reminiscent of his character from "The Office").
Much like the previously mentioned film "Jumanji," "Night at the Museum" should have worked. The book upon which it is based is a stellar children's story, and the story itself is premium material for a film laden with heart, special effects, fun and a happy ending.
There are so many problems with "Night at the Museum" that it's hard to know who to blame for the film's ultimate failure.
First, however, one must look at director Shawn Levy. Levy, much like he did with "The Pink Panther," seems to struggle with discerning the kind of film he actually wants to make here.
Is this a heartwarming family film? Is it a broad, physical comedy? Is it a special effects flick wrapped by a thin layer of comedy? What exactly is "Night at the Museum?" If Levy can't seem to decide, how can the audience be expected to do so?
The second problem lies squarely in the casting of Stiller, a goldmine of quirky, "aw shucks" humor who sleepwalks through his role here and is outshone by nearly the entire cast (except for Wilson, who gives us nothing more than a surfer dude in chaps). Stiller, first of all, has zero chemistry with Jake Cherry, who plays his son. This lack of chemistry makes the film's first 30 minutes practically unbearable as we are forced to buy into the father/son bond enough that we can surrender our senses for the film's remaining hour.
The other problem for Stiller is simply that his shtick is getting old. Nearly every comic actor faces a moment in their career when they must expand their repertoire or wither away and become a comic caricature.
Stiller's moment has arrived. There's simply nothing here he hasn't done before, and instead of drawing us into the action Stiller's performance only serves to remind us of past performances, most of which were much funnier and much more believable.
The trio of Cobbs, Van Dyke and Rooney sadly also reminded me of the recent "Grandma's Boy," a very average flick starring female comedy actresses Doris Roberts, Shirley Jones and Shirley Knight. While Van Dyke surfaces relatively unscathed, Cobbs and Rooney are woefully under-utilized and Rooney, in particular, is forced to mutter lines that simply aren't funny.
Sad. Very sad.
The film's highlights are undoubtedly the performances of Ricky Gervais, as an impossible to please boss, and the perfectly cast Robin Williams as a mannequin playing Theodore Roosevelt. While neither role is a particular stretch for either of the actors, both Gervais and Williams manage to turn mind-numbingly bland dialogue into comic bits in their moments onscreen.
The production design for "Night at the Museum" is impressive visually, and the special effects are intriguing to watch. Yet, much as in "Jumanji," they often feel pointless. The film's score, by Alan Silvestri, feels equally as pointless and suffers from director Levy's same lack of direction and intention.
Even after dark, there's far too little life to be found in "Night at the Museum." This holiday season, even the most diehard Ben Stiller fans are likely to consider "Night at the Museum" Hollywood's version of a cinematic lump of coal for an undeserving audience.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic