Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A pleasant, but unremarkable 'museum'

In trying to sell “A Night at the Museum,” ads for the DVD have dubbed the film “the biggest comedy adventure in history.” Despite a game all-star cast, that is hardly the case.

A movie starring Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan (“24 Hour Party People”), Ricky Gervais (the UK’s “The Office”), Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney could be a comedy smash, but instead it is only an amusing distraction for a lazy afternoon.

Movies with large comedy casts almost always disappoint because expectations are so high. Having a lot of comedy talent isn’t enough if the material isn’t sharp. “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” had practically every comic alive in 1963 and even that film wasn’t the greatest comedy adventure in history.

“Night at the Museum” is pitched at children and compared to a lot of what Hollywood tries to pass off as family entertainment, it is a vast improvement. Too often family fare panders to children and wallows in gross out humor. Movies for kids can and should be intelligent and clever.

Thankfully, “Night at the Museum” has moments of smart writing and even glimpses of wit, but unfortunately they are stuck in a plot that is formulaic and tiresome. Formula filmmaking can work if done well with a wink and knowing nod. Movies like “Elf” and “School of Rock” follow timeless templates, but do so in fun, fresh ways. “Night at the Museum” frequently allows its plot to get in the way of the comedy instead of nourishing it.

Stiller plays a deadbeat father who loves his son, but can’t seem to do anything right. He starts a new job as a night guard at New York’s Museum of Natural History only to find that the museum’s exhibits come alive at night. It goes without saying that through his new job Stiller will redeem himself and become a better person. He’ll also manage to get the girl, a pretty tour guide played by Carla Gugino (“Spy Kids”), in a tagged on romantic subplot.

Although the film’s inspired premise is never quite explored to its full potential, the film does have its fair share of funny moments. After a slow start it eventually finds its rhythm and ends brightly.

There are some great set pieces spread through out the lulls. A T-Rex skeleton that likes to play fetch with one of its rip bones is a reoccurring joke that stays funny. Wilson and Coogan as rival model miniatures, a cowboy and Roman respectively, are the highlight of the film and steal every scene they are in. Slapstick hijinks involving a troublesome monkey, cavemen and Atilla the Hun also earn a few grins and giggles.

Williams as Theodore Roosevelt isn't as funny as it sounds. Williams is naturally funny and therefore has moments that are amusing, even laugh-out-loud funny, but he’s hampered by a barely sketched subplot that has him in love with Sacajawea. Again, not as funny as it reads.

It is nice to see veterans Van Dyke and Rooney as Stiller’s night guard predecessors. They are clearly having a lot of fun and relishing the chance to let loose in a comedy again. Gervais as the museum manager plays a variation of his “Office” persona, but is largely wasted.

Stiller is fine, he can do this sort of performance in his sleep. This is basically a different shading of the characters he played in “There’s Something About Mary” and the “Meet the Parents” films. Stiller is a likable performer and he remains so here, but he has more range than this.

“Night at the Museum” isn’t a bad film. You’ll laugh, but the overall experience is underwhelming. It is like eating a fast food meal. You may leave feeling satisfied, but you know you could’ve gotten a better meal somewhere else.

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