I’m not going to claim that there isn’t a single funny moment in the sequel to Night at the Museum. The Ben Garant / Thomas Lennon script and Shawn Levy direction give the film more than enough rope to hang itself. I don’t have to pull on its feet by exaggerating their failure.
So, getting the good stuff (that’s a relative term) out of the way: Bill Hader (as General George A. Custer) earns a giggle by playing with his hair; Keith Powell and Craig Robinson have a moment as Tuskegee Airmen; and it’s always good to see Clint Howard. Are those brief highlights worth wading through the swamp of fetid slapstick and hyperactive CGI in which they’re hidden? Not a chance.
‘Don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone’ is the theme. Larry Daly (Ben Stiller) has escaped his guard gig at the National Museum of History in NYC to design and pitch useless gadgets for the home. Regular visits to the nocturnally energetic museum exhibits have become less regular, and during one visit he finds the statues boxed up for transport to the National Archives under the Smithsonian.
A few hand-wringing interludes later (Larry has a big sales meeting with Wal-Mart, can he go to Washington DC to rescue his friends, oh me, oh my!) Larry is in DC and prepared to infiltrate the Smithsonian. The only guard in the place seems to be Jonah Hill, so Larry is quickly rummaging around in the basement, where he finds that power-hungry Egyptian noble Kahmunrah has come to life and recruited other historic jerks (Napoleon, Al Capone, Ivan the Terrible) to help him bring his army of the dead to this world.
Larry manages to find his reanimated friends from the first movie (Owen Wilson as Jedediah Smith, Steve Coogan as Octavius, Mizuo Peck as Sacajaweaand is joined by the plucky Amelia Earheart. As the famed female pilot, Amy Adams is the best thing the movie has to offer. She’s plucky and upbeat and is the only source of energy that doesn’t come from CGI overload. Granted, she’s also wearing tight flight trousers that Levy scopes from behind whenever possible. Her ass should have it’s own billing.
Adams always stands out, but that she’s really the only performance worth talking about is, frankly, depressing. Hank Azaria plays Kahmunrah like he’s auditioning for Stewie in a live action Family Guy movie; Christopher Guest is unrecognizably unfunny as Ivan the Terrible; and as the Air and Space wing of the Smithsonian comes to life, every other performance is overshadowed by roaring CGI.
In a film where CGI effects constantly demand attention I’m typically able to take refuge in scenes where two actors just get to act. You know, like people. But Shawn Levy’s witless direction is like opening an airplane door in mid-flight; he sucks the air out of every setup. Did the ‘don’t touch!’ back and forth between Stiller and Jonah Hill look lifeless in the trailer? It is far worse in the film, where it seems endless.
‘Endless’ is as good a word as any to describe the pervasively self-aware, frenetic foolishness. (Neil Gaiman could do a comic book story starring this as the new incarnation of despair.) The characters run and pratfall, but none of that energy transfers to the jokes as one historical gag after another falls flat. The Garant/Lennon script is Epic Movie-level work.
As romance tentatively blooms between Larry and Emelia, I hoped we might get an ending, at least, that detoured into a sort of bizarro Larry and the Real Girl territory. That doesn’t happen. On the upside, the resolution to their mutual attraction is, for my money, far more creepy. Ooh, spoiler: Larry eventually hits on a girl that looks just like Amelia, proving that he’s as superficial and vapid as we’ve figured all along.