Aren’t trips to the museum supposed to make you smarterer?
If anything, I felt dumber after “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” and perhaps came out knowing less about history than I did going in.
Not that I expected a summer tentpole to be especially brainy, but this made me long for the sharp, incisive intellectualism of, say, “Friday the 13th” or “Confessions of a Shopaholic.”
In some future multimedia museum, “NATM2” might serve as an exhibit for early 21st century cinema — approaching limitlessness technically but limited creatively by the very fact that every single person has to be able to “get it” if the $150 million budget’s to be recouped.
“NATM2” is all about the best CGI and A-list talent money can buy.
A digital octopus unfurls, a mob of kangaroos are hopping mad, a pterodactyl flaps about, a classical sculpture shows off muscles and a massive Abe Lincoln kicks ass.
Ben Stiller’s joined again by Steve Coogan, Owen Wilson and Robin Williams, with Amy Adams, Hank Azaria, Christopher Guest, Bill Hader, Ricky Gervais and Jonah Hill along for the ride.
It’s an exhausting cast list, nearly as frightfully expensive as the CGI mayhem. Which makes it ironic that by far the biggest laughs from the kids in my audience came from Dexter the Capuchin monkey slamming Stiller’s fingers in a packing crate or slapping him in the face — bits of physical comedy that could’ve been found in a $100 one-reeler from this time last century.
Such pure outbursts of mirth are rare, though, with “NATM2”’s humor feeling as cluttered and overstuffed as its 13-character poster.
There are two strains of joke here, neither offering much nourishment to adults.
The first has Stiller and Hill/Azaria/whoever picking at a pedantic notion (touching/height/whatever) and blowing it up into what’s supposed to be a hilarious freeform riff. Thing is, if you don’t find this style of japery funny, you’re left with a repetitive dead spot as the film tries to convince us comebacks like Jonah Hill’s “Did they run out of interesting jokes at the joke store you shop at?” are anything other than self-amused screenwriting.
It works best in Azaria’s fictitious Pharoah Kahmunrah’s fussy, parsing dialogue — “I’m half-God, once removed, on my mother’s side” — but “The Simpsons” voice master creates a massive impediment to our enjoyment by lumping the villain with a campy British lisp.
Worse, by an order of magnitude, is “NATM2”’s insistence on turning most historical and mythical characters into vessels for lame pop-culture jokes. You can soon instinctively count off the beats until Rodin’s Thinker or Einstein bobbleheads or the monumental Abe Lincoln bust out some mid-2009 dudespeak as a prelude to breaking into song.
Adding insult to injury is that these gags are then explained in dialogue, as they are in the diabolically stupid Epic/Date/Disaster Movie abominations. So that when Jonas Brother cherubs break into Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” it’s deemed necessary for Larry to helpfully call it “the love theme from ‘Titanic.’”.
I’m saying the very point of a pop-culture reference is for the audience to feel included by working it out themselves — and not trusting them to be able to identify one of the biggest-selling singles in history from history’s biggest-grossing movie is to treat them like idiots.
In some ways, “NATM2”’s failures provide their own entertainment. Much like a trip to a real museum, what’s on exhibit causes your mind wanders off on its own tangents. How is it that Larry and Amy can fly a plane around D.C. without being shot down by Homeland Security, much less pilot a prop plane into the heart of Manhattan? Does having Clint Howard as a Smithsonian NASA mission controller qualify as another lazy in-joke, or is it a cunning comment on the blurring of pop-culture and historical revisionism?
Why is it that General Custer is aware of his own fate, but Amelia Earhart seems oblivious to hers? What principle governs which of the exhibits come to life because there are, after all 136 million items in the Smithsonian, so if Al Capone’s mugshot animates why not Bruce Willis’ sweaty wifebeater from “Die Hard”?
Of course, just keep repeating to yourself, “It’s only a movie” and you can have fun with it, especially on a lazy Friday night when you want nothing more than to slip your brain out of gear. It’s the type of flick that inspires obscure, blurb-hungry radio journalists to invoke the words “thrill ride.”
The real problem is that “NATM2” comes with one fantastic sequence that won’t let you alone. It niggles because it hints at a whole other, smarter movie, one that respects the audience.
In it Larry and Amy Adams’ Amelia Earhart encounter a roomful of modern American art and are sucked into that famous photo of a sailor kissing a gal in Times Square on V-J day in 1945. “This is new,” says Larry of the magical sequence, as if acknowledging the rest of “NATM2” is a rehash.
They should run with this with “NATM3,” which I hear is already in development. Given that in “NATM2” we’re told repeatedly that the Smithsonian is “the biggest museum in the world,” the franchise has backed itself into a corner size-wise.
So how about smarter rather than bigger? How about “Night at the Museum of Modern Art: Dadaists Vs Surrealists”? directed by Spike Jonze?
That’d be the ticket.