December 21, 2006

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Night at the Museum (PG)
Ben Stiller cavorts with historical figures, the reanimated bones of a tyrannosaurus rex and a mischievous monkey in the nerdventure Night at the Museum, a painless family movie for your holiday season.

This movie in tone and in its apparent target audience reminds me very much of National Treasure, a vaguely historical action adventure movie released last year shortly around Thanksgiving. I had only lukewarm feelings for that movie but I could tell that it would be excellent for entertaining relatives of various age groups and cinematic tastes and would provide the whole family with a two-hour period wherein they wouldn’t have to talk to each other. Night at the Museum seems to fall into a similar category, though its higher level of goofiness and the presence of a kid character would allow it to appeal to an even broader audience — basically anyone old enough to sit still for more than 30 minutes and to watch characters that aren’t cartoons. For a piece of entertainment firing so broadly, Night at the Museum surprised me by more or less hitting its targets.

Larry (Stiller) is out of work and on the edge of losing his New York apartment, thus putting him farther away from his son Nick (Jake Cherry), who lives with his mom and visits Larry on Wednesdays and alternate weekends. He begs the nice lady at the temp agency (Stiller’s actual mom Anne Meara) to give him something, anything. Well, she says, there is this one job…

Larry arrives at the American Museum of Natural History thinking he might have a fancy curator job awaiting him. In reality, the job is night guard — the museum is consolidating its watch crew and firing old-timers Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), Gus (Mickey Rooney) and Reginald (Bill Cobbs). Larry’s job, armed with flashlight and keys, is to patrol the museum’s many galleries and try not to fall asleep, which he does on his first night.

He wakes up and finds that the giant T-rex near the admission booth is gone. He tiptoes around the corner and sees the dinosaur’s intact, animated skeleton taking a few sips from the water fountain. The ’saurus sees Larry, lets out an earth-shaking roar and then scampers over to him to play fetch. Larry, reading in the instruction manual that step one of his job is “throw the bone,” does so and then walks the halls of the museum to discover that all the displays have come alive, from the hall of African mammals (about which the manual instructs to lock them in or “the lions will eat you”) to the life-size display featuring a bored Sacajawea (Minzu Peck) to the dioramas where tiny frontier settlers led by Jedediah (Owen Wilson) try to fulfill manifest destiny and tiny Romans led by Octavius (Steve Coogan) are looking to do more conquering. By the end of the first night, Larry’s been smacked around by a monkey, given a talking-to by President Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) and is more or less scared out of his wits.

So naturally, he quits.

But then he remembers that no job equals even less respect in the eyes of Nick and so he decides to try for night two. He spends the day boning up on history via Idiot’s Guide to Genghis Khan and peppering museum tour guide Rebecca (Carla Gugino) with questions about the exhibits. She’s especially schooled in Sacajawea, the subject of a thesis/book she’s writing. Sparks spark between Larry and Rebecca but Larry doesn’t have time for that, he’s got to prepare for his second engagement with history. He shows up, prepared to face the sundown with gum for the Easter Island head, a lighter for the cave men trying to discover fire and a lesson about compromise for the warring cowboys and Romans. Naturally, his best laid plans go awry — the cavemen set fire to their display; Jed’s and Octavius’ men turn their gallery into a battlefield, with the spear-chucking Mayans egging them on from behind their locked case, and Dexter the monkey manages to grab Larry’s keys and open a window. The result is a mess in the museum and one dead caveman — he gets stuck outside and when the sun rises he turns to dust.

Museum head Mr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) is itching to fire Larry for the mess but decides to give him one last chance. Larry, hoping to win over Nick, brings his son to work to see the show but, naturally, nothing happens. Seems someone’s stolen the Egyptian tablet that cast the nightly reanimating spell. It’s soon up to Larry and Nick — with the help of their mostly waxen friends and one flesh-and-blood-dust person, Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), the Egyptian pharaoh to whom the tablet belongs — to get the exhibits alive and get the tablet back.

Hokey though this all sounds, the actors manage to pull the panorama of characters together into something of a cohesive caper. Gervais is spot on, using the same mix of bluster and small gestures to give us a boss who isn’t totally sure of himself. (He almost imperceptibly narrows his eyes to convey ignorance and at the same time an attempt to hide his ignorance. The move is subtle but brilliant.) Wilson and Coogan make a delightful comic duo — Octavius, like all good Romans, is a snooty Brit and Jed has all of Wilson’s standard surfer cool. Even Williams manages to cool it, giving up most (or at least 60 percent) of his chances for Patch-Adamsery.

Stiller also dials it back from full-on wacky to about a six or a seven on the 10-point scale. There is an all-around restraint that generally allows the fun to come through without barraging the audience with desperate, crazy-eyed “FUN.”

But even better, the setting and details of the movie are so deliciously nerdy, so sweetly geeky that I started to wonder if some sort of association of museums had planned this movie to help increase attendance. Knowledge of history saves the day — how many times does knowledge of anything save the day in mainstream action adventure movies?

Goofy, silly and light, Night at the Museum is nonetheless an overall satisfying piece of family entertainment. B

Rated PG for mild action, language and brief rude humor. Directed by Shawn Levy and written by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, Night at the Museum is an hour and 48 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by 20th Century Fox.