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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Night at the Museum

Fatherhood must agree with Ben Stiller. After a string of very funny yet also very acidic comedies like Duplex, School For Scoundrels and Meet the Fockers, Ben married long-time girlfriend Christine Taylor (Room 6), had a couple of kids of his own, Ella and Quinlin, and has moved from his cynical phase to a more family friendly mode starring in Night at the Museum, now playing to near-capacity crowds at the Essex Cinemas.

Here is a treat for kids and adults who enjoy their movies stuffed with special effects and fantasy, both of which drive the action of a
Night at the Museum. Anyone who has seen the preview of the movie has basically seen a condensed version of the entire film, so if you liked that, you are going to love the full length feature.

The only difference between the trailer and the full length movie is a flighty plot that strings together the reasons for all of these magical things to be happening. It begins with loser Larry Daley (Ben Stiller; Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny), a divorced dad who has had any
number of jobs in the past year and is now on the verge of eviction. He maintains a shaky but amiable relationship with his ex-wife Erica (Kim Raver; Mind the Gap), who is happily remarried to Don, a successful stockbroker (Paul Rudd; Fast Track). Her biggest concern about her ex-husband is how his lifestyle and frequent moving from one apartment to another because of his lack of a good job is going to affect their son, Nick (Jake Cherry; Friends With Money). After all, he is at an impressionable age and needs a role model, someone more like Don than Larry. Until Larry can guarantee her that he has a real job and a place to live without the threat of eviction hanging over his head Erica says won’t allow Nick to stay overnight with his father.

A job. That’s definitely a high priority on Larry’s list of things to take care of, and he is soon facing a less than charming employment specialist at an employment agency. For those who love the “in” jokes movie productions sometimes pull, the part of the acrid agent is played by Stiller’s own real life mother, veteran comedienne Ann Meara, lately of tv’s “King of Queens”. Who better to send the poor schlub off to the museum than his own mom?

Playing retiring guards are veteran actors Dick Van Dyke (tv’s
“Diagnosis Murder”), Mickey Rooney (The Thirsting), and Bill Cobb (The Ultimate Gift). This trio of Christmas hams do their best to chew the scenery in each little bit they’re given to do, which isn’t much. Still, it is somehow reassuring and almost comforting to see Mickey Rooney still plugging along, just as feisty and foolish as he was back in his Andy Hardy days of the 1930s.

Anyway, he’s on the job only a matter of minutes when suddenly chaos erupts before Larry’s eyes and the film bursts with a whimsy of subplots
and new characters that come alive to complicate his otherwise dull life. Larry can’t believe it as he makes friends with former President Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams; Man of the Year) who explains that because of an ancient golden tablet of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek; tv’s “The War at Home”) everything in the museum comes to life every night and has since the artifact first arrived in 1952. Apparently this was a tiny bit of the training Cecil (Van Dyke) forgot to mention, along with a reminder that when everything comes to life that also means such things as the twenty foot tyrannosaurus skeleton near the entrance, the man-eating lions in the Natural History display, the Neanderthals staged to look as if they are trying to build fire, and a particularly unpleasant horde of Huns, led by Attila himself (Patrick Gallagher; The Taste of Tea).

The silly chases, confrontations, resolutions of these fights and the struggle for peace within the museum is Larry’s new burden, and one he shares with his son on one particular night so that he can impress the lad with the magic and wonderment of it all. Naturally, this is the night that things go terribly wrong and Teddy makes it clear to Larry that the crisis at hand can only be righted by Larry and that this is his “time to step up and be a man” and in the process win the respect of Nick once and for all.

The dramatic turn in
Night at the Museum
is not much of a surprise nor is it a shock when Larry is put in the position of championing the very existence of all the “lives” of the residents of the museum. This is the type of picture that you know before it begins will have a happy ending, and when there is a obstacle it is really just one more way for the CGI folks to find a way to work their charms on us.

Whether it is having a miniscule Owen Wilson (You, Me & Dupree) as an ornery escapee from an Old West display or Steve Coogan (Marie Antoinette) as an equally cranky Octavius, the Roman warrior living in a diorama
next door, or a lonely Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck; Scenes of the Crime) longing to see more to life than what is behind the glass display window that imprisons her with the ever-arguing Lewis and Clark or even the tyrannosaurus that is more Marmaduke than monster, Larry has his hands full. Add to the mix Rebecca (Carla Gugino; Even Money), the beautiful docent who seems to be genuinely interested in sharing her vast knowledge of the museum with Larry as they begin a friendship one can naturally assume will lead to a budding romance by the time the end credits roll.

Will there be misunderstandings? Will there be disasters? Will
Night at the Museum make you laugh out loud? The answer to all of these questions is yes, yes, and yes. It’s a great popcorn flick, good fun for the whole family. You may not leave with visions of Oscars dancing in your head, but sometimes a movie can just be a potpourri of playfulness without piling on the platitudes, and this is a good one to just relax with that big tub of popcorn, a gigantic fountain soft drink, maybe a vest pocket full of Twizzlers and a couple of hours to settle into one of the comfy extra-soft rockers at the Essex Cinemas and treat yourself to a Christmas gigglefest.

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