In the interests of accuracy, let me state that I would not have gone to see this film were it not a social occasion in a small town where we’d either seen or were disinterested in everything else on offer. Director Shawn Levy’s work to date has appeared to be singularly uninspiring so I haven’t bothered to sample it: The Pink Panther and Cheaper by the Dozen (1 and 2) screamed ‘derivative studio comedy!’ Having seen Night at the Museum, I can confirm that my suspicions about Levy were correct: he has virtually nothing to offer visually, comically, or actionly (yes, I made that up, but I’m sure he would too).
What’s most agonising about Night at the Museum is that it takes the premise for an potentially exciting, funny family film and utterly fails to capitalise on it. Instead exploiting the inevitable but endearing and clever ramifications of a concept ala Toy Story, we have Ben Stiller’s vendetta against a small monkey that keeps urinating on him. Honestly, what is America’s obsession with monkeys? Great animals, don’t get me wrong, but their comedic value should wear out pretty quickly. But no, half of YouTube seems to be chimps eating their own shit. Other jokes long since done to death fill the entire running time. How does a studio comedy lead react to a horde of bloodthirsty huns? He talks Attila into recalling a troubled childhood that has made him lash out. Amateur therapy on burly violent types followed by cathartic tears is another old standby that this school of comedy never tires of. Talking of convention, surprise, surprise, Stiller plays a divorcee whose son is becoming distant. Cue the ultimate bonding opportunity, some valuable lessons, etc etc.
Stiller himself is cruising, big time. He’s a great talent who chooses to regularly slum in dross like this, Along Came Polly (“from the co-writer of Meet the Parents”!), and Starsky and Hutch, punctuated occasionally by some branching out in Arrested Development and Meet the Parents. It’s a shame how he and Owen Wilson continue to peddle the same persona from film to film given that they are capable of much more.
Worse still, he has a strong supporting cast completely wasted in a painful climax about a mystical amulet that not only brings the museum exhibits to life, but inexplicably makes the elderly security guards feel young again at night. Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney get nothing to do but give it a go. Plus, what the hell is Robin Williams doing here?! His dull character and lines make this the most pointless utilising of Williams’ talent in a long time. Likewise, Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan seem a little bewildered in their cameo roles (actually, when Gervais is on screen, it seems to be a different film, his deadpan style amusingly at odds with the surrounding sledgehammers), although Coogan and Wilson (who has his own cameo as a cowboy with clichés to spare) get the film’s single laugh-out-loud gag, a witty mining of the premise that Pixar would be proud to use. It’s a shame that it’s almost ruined by a Brokeback Mountain joke that would have been lame even when it was timely.
There’s precious little to recommend this film, so put it from your mind, except to be depressed that it has been a monster holiday hit in the US. Sigh….