Night At The Museum Review
Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) hasn't made a big success of his life. Divorced and unemployed, he's put off getting a regular job for years, convinced that one of his many ideas and inventions will one day make him rich. It's only when he's on the verge of being evicted from his apartment and forced to move far away from his young son (Jake Cherry) that he finally seeks work. He finds it, as a night security guard at New York's Natural History Museum.
Larry's being hired as a replacement for three elderly guards who are being put out to pasture (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs). They show him around, give him a list of instructions and tell him the cardinal rule: he mustn't let anything in or out. Out? Larry wonders what that could mean. After the sun sets, the visitors leave and the museum's doors close for the night, he finds out exactly what it means. At night, the exhibits come to life.
One of the nice things about regular cinemagoing is that once in a while you go to a movie not expecting very much and it surprises you. A film that looks suspiciously like formulaic crap turns out to be a little gem. Night At The Museum is one of those pleasant surprises. Yes, it's the mainstream, family-friendly special effects comedy they're advertising, but it's a good one, not the lazy CGI-fest I was expecting. It's disarmingly silly, it's funny, it's good natured, it has a great cast and it's not without a brain. The effects are state of the art without calling too much attention to themselves. They serve the film, they're not the whole show.
The moment Night At The Museum takes off is the moment when Larry figures out how to stop the T-Rex skeleton from chasing him. Up to that point, it's been more or less everything you'd expect, though a fair bit funnier - like I said, the cast is top notch - but with that one gag, it shifts up a gear. Don't worry, I'm not going to spoil it (miraculously, the marketing people haven't put it in the trailer) but it's so daft and yet so inspired, it's one of the laugh-out-loud moments of the year.
Not many of the jokes that follow are in quite the same league but more than enough are funny. Steve Coogan and Owen Wilson are great as a pair of size-conscious miniature warriors, Robin Williams is on top form as a lovesick Theodore Roosevelt and there's a running Attila The Hun joke with a priceless pay-off. There's so much good material that you can forgive the occasional disappointment, like Ricky Gervais reprising his David Brent act to little effect as the museum's curator.
The movie's brains are a big part of its charm. The script seems like it was written by someone who's been to a museum and liked it, not by someone who had the idea while walking past one. This is a film that champions intelligence. It's important to the plot that Larry's growing knowledge of history and the natural world helps him keep the exhibits under control, as well as win the heart of pretty history-geek tour guide Rebecca (Carla Gugino).
Ben Stiller is ideally cast as Larry. Some comedians work well with special effects - Bill Murray in Ghostbusters and Will Smith in Men In Black come to mind - and Stiller definitely works well with them. His sarcastic, nerdy, not-quite-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is comic persona fits the film snugly. There's something about him that makes even obvious gags like his slapfight with the monkey funny. Plus this is a movie that calls for a lot of comic double takes and few comedians do them better.
One of the reasons I wasn't excited about seeing Night At The Museum is seeing director Shawn Levy's name on the credits. Levy doesn't have an inspiring track record. His previous films have ranged from adequate (Just Married) to pretty awful (Cheaper By The Dozen) but it must be said that all of them have shown evidence that he can make a funny film, given the material. This time he has it and he has the right star. Levy's last movie was the Pink Panther remake, which certainly did not have the right star. Watched together, those two movies demonstrate just what good and bad casting can do to a film.