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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian

I love going to museums. There is something so palatable about entering a structure designed to hold our shared history and then just take in a deep breath of those musty, old fossils first thing in the morning. That’s the best time to go, before the museum fills up with busloads of school kids and bored housewives looking for a little relief from the tedium of their daily lives. It’s best in the morning, right after breakfast, because then you can easily find a bench in one of the exhibit halls and just sit for as long as you like and enjoy these ancient artifacts in all their glory ~ smell the smells, gaze upon them in relative privacy. It’s important to remember that they’ll inevitably be gone by eleven; that’s when the little bus whisks them back to the maximum security nursing home where they are interred by grateful relatives who would otherwise be forced to take care of these “loved ones” they would have you believe they adore and respect like actual members of their family, which they are, but let’s not get into that now. Me, I just like to sniff ‘em, then when all the old people leave I’m stuck with nothing to do but look at a bunch of rotting junk and fading pictures that fill up the museum. I don’t mean any disrespect. I just like the smell of grandmas and grandpas.

Museums without old people in them are pretty dull actually. Teenagers are generally loud, but loud doesn’t make for interesting. Experience makes things interesting, and I’ve had lots of cool conversations with elderly people I didn’t know while hanging out in museums. A few years ago, I met an octogenarian named Chandler in a Charleston museum and he told me more about the Civil War in 30 minutes than I ever learned in sixteen years of schooling. My favorite tidbit: Ladies of the South would only refer to our nation’s greatest debilitating national tragedy as “that Great Unpleasantness” in conversation. I still chuckle at that. Fiddle-de-dee, Miss Scarlett.

One time I attended an art opening at the Guggenheim in New York specifically to see the lifelike sculptures made by Duane Hansen out of a polymer so incredible it allows the artist the ability to create the illusion of veins, blood vessels, and arteries under the “skin” of his creations. He then dresses them and poses them in whatever specific design he is trying to achieve. One installation, called “The Tourists,” features a typically overweight, brightly dressed, camera-bestrewn, and Bermuda shorts wearing middle-aged couple. They are standing with their heads tipped nearly straight back, their mouths opened in awe and with the “man” pointing a puffy finger skyward to direct his “wife” to whatever astounding sight was overhead. This particular piece was placed in a straight line right inside the entry doors of the massive building, where the broad multi-level design creates an open, airy spiral up to the skylight ceiling seven floors above. Like the proverbial sucker born every minute, I walked in the front door, saw the couple, and stepped immediately to the side of the guy, tipped my head back, shielded my eyes from the bright light and tried to focus on what he was pointing at. That’s when a crowd to my extreme right, nestled under the over-hang of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed staircase let out a collective roar at my expense. Yes, I’d been punked, long before “punking” was even a word. By a friggin’ statue no less. Well, two actually, but they were so life-like it was downright eerie.

That same premise is sort of what drove the plot behind 2006’s surprise mega-hit Night at the Museum with Ben Stiller (Tropic Thunder) as a hapless night guard who finds that everyone and everything at the New York Museum of Natural History comes to life after dark thanks to the magic golden tablet of Ahkmenrah, an Egyptian Pharoah from way back when.

Now comes the inevitable sequel, cleverly titled Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian. I’ll bet you can guess where Stiller’s Larry Daley is going to end up in this one, even though Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian opens with Larry working far from the original Museum, now as a successful entrepreneur of glow-in-the-dark flashlights. It’s only when he discovers from his old boss, the obnoxiously idiotic Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais; Ghost Town) that the Museum is boxing up all of their current exhibits for shipment to the National Archives at the Smithsonian in Washington DC that Larry gets panicky. Even though he has pretty much ignored his magical after-hours pals in the past couple of years, he isn’t ready to have them crated up and “buried” alive in a warehouse someplace, so he is off to DC to break into the National Archives. Okay, so like all good parents, Larry immediately calls who to help him get in? That’s right, his twelve year old son Nicky (Jake Cherry; The Rebound), who seems to be able to access the architectural records of the underground tunnels and restricted areas of the Smithsonian Museums without the waste of a single keystroke on his computer. I’m thinking for the next sequel perhaps Larry should have Nicky get him into the Federal Mint or Fort Knox just for the fun of it. This kid is obviously gifted in a felonious way. You might as well take advantage of it.

Anyway, just when you think this whole movie is beginning to stink like Teddy Roosevelt’s horse left a 90-year-old dumpling in the midst of the audience, writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (who wrote the original, as well as appear briefly as Orville and Wilbur Wright respectively) shuffle Robin Williams (Theodore Roosevelt), Owen Wilson (Jedediah Smith), Steve Coogan (Octavius), Mizuo Peck (Sacajawea), Rami Malek (Ahkmenrah), and Kerry van der Griend, Matthew Harrison, and Rick Dobran (the Neanderthals) all to the backburner with their checks in hand and thanks from the studio for showing up again. Then they basically reinvent the original story with a whole new bunch of historical characters, most notably featuring Hank Azaria (The Simpsons Movie) as Kahmunrah, Ahkmenrah’s much crankier older brother, who decides he wants World Domination and is willing to destroy everyone in his way to get. To get that, he collects his own posse of no-good-doers, Al Capone (Jon Bernthal; A Line in the Sand), Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher; The Valet), Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest; For Your Consideration) and Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat; Un monde à nous), who are determined to retrieve the golden tablet from Larry so he can open the gate to the Netherworld and free everything unholy on the world. How unpleasant.

If all this sounds a bit too busy, don’t worry, the one who really counts in all this is newcomer Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams; Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day). Well, okay, Amelia Earhart isn’t exactly new, but she’s new to the reborn from being a wax figure, and, for a newborn, she’s got spunk. Real 1930s aviatrix spunk. Her presence is all that this movie needs to keep it afloat. With her expressions like “Great Gatsby!”, “Jeepers!” and “Skeezix!” and her gorgeous smile she could gaze adoringly into Ben Stiller’s eyes and she’d need do nothing more, but since she is America’s favorite dead flybird she does a whole lot more, like kick ass and save the day (with a little help from Ben/Larry, his computer criminal son, and an impromptu flight aboard the Wright Brothers’ Spirit of St. Louis).

I will say that Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian is a tad better than its predecessor, thanks entirely to Adams and Azaria. If there had been no Night at the Museum, then this probably would have seemed like a brilliant idea from start to finish (although still a terrible waste of a lot of big name talent, i.e., the original cast), but since we have spent a Night at the Museum before there isn’t quite as much awe inspired by the premise as the first time around, and so the reason to see the movie falls more squarely on the shoulders of the principals involved since the surprise element is gone. Fortunately, when you’ve got Amelia Earhart to keep you flying high you can’t miss.

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