Monday, January 01, 2007

Night at the Museum

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (Shawn Levy, 2006)

Hard up for work, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) accepts a position as night security officer at the Museum of Natural History. His first night on the job Larry discovers that the late shift will be much more rigorous than the occasional stroll through the exhibits with plenty of time for reading books and catnapping. When the sun goes down in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, the displays come to life.

An Egyptian tablet in the museum's collection transforms the wax and taxidermied figures into living, breathing beings overnight, but if any exhibits are outside when the sun rises, they turn into sand. It is Larry's responsibility to keep the peace and ensure that none of the inhabitants leave the building. With a playful Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton to amuse, a diorama battle between cowboys and Roman soldiers to mediate, and a mischievous monkey to keep in line, Larry has his hands full. Former President Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) helps show Larry the ropes, but ultimately he will have to take control of the situation, even the Easter Island head slinging insults and the fierce mini-Mayan warriors.

Heavy on special effects and Stiller's shtick, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM is a big, silly comedy with a little something for everyone in the family. The effects work is integrated well into this museum adventure, but it doesn't overshadow the basic slapstick and funny performances from which the film gets its humor. The broad screenplay might have hampered lesser comedic actors, but Stiller tailors his role so that there's some intelligence peeking out of the doofus he's playing. He would have been better off dropping the belabored scene in which he psychoanalyzes Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), though.

The most fun in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM is found in the supporting cast. As the crusty security guards forced into retirement, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs are a treat to watch as they needle Larry and stir up trouble. The irascible Rooney is hilarious as he itches for a fight with Larry. Steve Coogan and Owen Wilson, as the Roman Octavius and a gunslinging cowboy, make their scenes snap with humor from the strength of their personalities slicing through the middling jokes. Ricky Gervais puts his unique twist on the uptight twit running the museum.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM is more amusement park ride than a walk through the halls of history, but sometimes a slap fight with a monkey is preferable to a lesson on Sacajawea. The film has a lighthearted nature and the good sense to keep things simple. Most films would have devoted time to a seemingly inevitable romance with Larry and a docent played by Carla Gugino, but NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM understands that such matters are unimportant when the main attraction is the zaniness that ensues when history exhibits come alive.

Grade: B-

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