Night at the Museum II: Stay Out of Washington

05/22/2009 2:55 PM |

Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart climb out from under their film-snob rock, to find out what regular people all over the country are eating popcorn during. This week, they have a cultural experience at the museum. The Smithsonian, to be exact.

It’s funny, Henry, that after looking for signs of our new president’s worldly ways in our last few discussions — especially in the supposedly diplomatic galactic politics of Star Trek — we should finally find Obama at the Battle of the Smithsonian. In many ways, of course, it follows fairly logically from night guard-turned-shopping channel “inventor” Larry Daley’s (Ben Stiller) journey to D.C., where his animated artifact buddies from the first Night at the Museum (2006) are being shipped for storage. And though we never meet the president — Steve Coogan’s miniature Roman centurion charges the White House to solicit Obama’s aid in battle, only to be captured by a squirrel — the walking, wise-cracking, soundbite-spewing Lincoln Memorial statue (voiced by Hank Azaria) who caps the film’s mediocre climactic battle is a pretty obvious proxy.

This indulgent all-star sequel (think Ocean’s Twelve, where we’re supposed to enjoy watching an astounding payroll of stars simply because they’re enjoying themselves) opens with New York’s Natural History Museum in the midst of a major overhaul, and really isn’t the whole film about how the arts are going to be okay now that we have a President cultured enough to hang a Warhol in the White House? Warhol, incidentally, is suspiciously absent from the gallery of modern artworks that come to life in Battle of the Smithsonian — because, as Daley’s abandoned son Nick (Jake Cherry) explains via telephone, “Smithsonian” refers to all the museums on the National Mall. This conceit gives returning director Shawn Levy license to incorporate a time travel scene in Times Square circa 1945 (and a bit of historical revision that reminded me of the climactic 3 Mile Island battle in X-Men Origins: Wolverine), a flight on the Wright Brothers’ plane, and an annoying trio of cherubs voiced (in an especially cringe-inducing instance of horizontally-integrated late capitalist synergy) by the Jonas Brothers. What tacked-on subplot or character did you find most annoying?

Uh, all of them? Your Ocean’s Twelve comparison is apt, because there was nothing really going on here: spectacle after dull spectacle, broken by America’s horseplaying comic nobility on cruise control, as though just showing up is funny. (Look, Bill Hader has weird facial hair! And he’s talkin’ funny!) The WWII sequence you mention was neat — when Larry and Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams and her wonderfully effusive eyes) leap into the “monochromatic mayhem” of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photograph of a lip-locked couple on VJ Day — but simultaneously it felt like a missed opportunity. The gag was cribbed from, of all things, Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action (see about four minutes into this clip), in which Elmer Fudd chases Bugs and Daffy through paintings by Dali, da Vinci, Munch, and others. It’s a wildly clever sequence, and so too could have been Night at the Museum 2‘s analogous scene. Why didn’t they jump into the Edward Hopper or the Grant Wood? Because that would have required some effort beyond switching to black and white stock? Despite its ample CGI, this movie is just really fucking lazy.

As for the Obamamania you note, I didn’t read it the same way. Coogan’s line — something like, “I hear a great man lives here [at the White House]” — seemed intentionally vague to me. It must take a long time to finish all those computer effects, so we can imagine Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon’s screenplay was done before the election; had McCain won, the line still could have stood. I thought it was rooted more in an old-fashioned, pre-Nixon respect for the office of the presidency, as the movie had a certain Mr. Smith-style awe for all things Washington (9 1/2 minutes into this clip), a reverence for American history from its players (Lincoln, Tuskegee Airmen, etc.) to its artifacts (the Wright Bros. aeroplane, Archie Bunker’s “throne”). It seemed to love smashing them, too, as when Larry and Amelia crash Orville and Wilbur’s flying machine, or when the Lincoln of the Lincoln Memorial comes plowing through the museum’s walls to save the day. (As Hader, playing General Custer, says: “we’re Americans — we don’t plan, we do.”) Honest Abe scares the ancient, undead Egyptian (read: Arab) bird warriors (it’s a weird climax) back behind the stone door through which they passed — like the terrorists back into their caves, of course. America is not only historically rich; it’s big, strong, and awesome! How else would it have all those pilfered Nilean artifacts?

I can’t believe you don’t think that the Lincoln Memorial statue was Obama! How many times was the one Illinoisan compared to the other during last year’s election? Also, screenwriters Garrant and Lennon being better known as two thirds of the team behind Comedy Central’s Reno 911!, I’d like to think that their political allegiances lie pretty far to the left, and that Coogan’s “great man” line was hardly bi-partisan. Then again, this is a Fox movie (do they, like, own the Smithsonian now?), so who knows? To be honest I was really hoping the rustling in the grass behind Coogan was a huge D.C. rat — remember those RNC ads during the 2000 election with the subliminal “rats” message? Speaking of which, why are both of this film’s cities completely empty? (Perhaps this is a Republican fantasy after all!) Maybe the National Mall is empty in the middle of the night, but I was pretty baffled when Earhart landed her vintage prop plane on Central Park West without encountering any motorists, Con Air-style. I guess they didn’t want anybody scratching up that spectacular CGI version of American history.

As you point out, Battle of the Smithsonian‘s blind reverence for American mythology, its artifacts and those “borrowed” from other, lesser nations is fairly propagandistic — like the exhibitions American museums used to send to Cold War front countries to prove the U.S.’s cultural superiority over the Soviets. Incidentally, there’s a great thesis paper waiting for whoever wants to compare Night at the Museum 1 and 2 with Aleksandr Sokurov’s one-take wonder Russian Ark. Shawn Levy’s film becomes such a museum-visit-on-mushrooms sort of spectacle that it practically inverts the typical blockbuster formula, where set pieces are conceived then the simplest plot is constructed in order to string them together. Here it’s as if the filmmakers cruised Wikipedia picking their historical targets then tried to hit as many as possible with some truly atrocious action sequences — like the final fight, which is an embarrassing slap-match despite all the spears, swords and tommy guns involved.

That said, there’s still a fairly exclusive ideology behind how Battle of the Smithsonian picks and chooses who gets into its history book. The only American baddies, for instance, are Al Capone (Jon Bernthal) and his Italian-American mafia cohorts, and the only female character other than Earhart, Sacajawea (played by Japanese-American Mizuo Peck), is stuck with cavemen and Custer in a shipping container for the whole film (which, of course, is how so many would-be immigrants die trying to enter the country illegally). Where else does this clunky pro-American family blockbuster accidentally undermine the values it tries so hard to uphold?

Well, the movie certainly subverts the values our country inherited from the Puritans — namely, the virtue of hard work. The American Dream — upward mobility through ingenuity and perseverance — is based on adults working hard, but Night at the Museum 2 vilifies that attitude, arguing instead that we should all be children hard at play. The recent Apatow comedies have featured immature schlubs who learn to grow up, or, at least, to strike a compromise between their childishness and the inevitable responsibility of adulthood. But this movie encourages the grown up to grow down.

The movie opens with Larry’s museum friends — his toys — being packed away in crates; like the cowgirl doll left to molder in a shoebox in Toy Story 2, it wistfully signals the end of childhood. The rest of the film isn’t about learning to cope with that, though; it’s about his fight to reclaim his spirit of adventure and his capability to enjoy life: to recapture his childhood innocence by shedding his corrupted maturity. Freeing his crate-imprisoned friends becomes freeing his inner self. As Jedediah (Owen Wilson) tells Larry: “I didn’t call you because we needed you. I called you because you needed us.” (The film could easily have been subtitled “The Search for Larry’s Moxie”.)

At the beginning, Larry is the inventor of products like the “Super Big Dog Bone” and the “Glow in the Dark Flashlight”; basically, he’s a toymaker. But running a business, even if it’s toys, isn’t really fun; note the phony laughter Larry shares with spokesperson George Foreman. The filmmakers present Larry from a child’s view of adulthood: daddy’s always on his cellphone! And he talks about boring work-stuff during dinner! The moral of the story, spelled out at the end, is “do what you love with the people you love.” But Larry is only able to do that because the museum is enchanted. Without magic, he’d be either a miserable workaholic or a bored, low-paid security guard who can’t pay his bills or connect with his son. As such, maybe the movie is kind of subversive: since magic isn’t real, the film argues it’s actually impossible, realistically, to be happy in America.

You’re completely right, this is a kids’ action adventure whose adult protagonist is more childish than his pre-adolescent son — who, incidentally, sits behind a desk working at a computer for the entire movie. The younger, more grown-up boy’s marginalization from the action of the film (whose target audience is young boys) reminded me of the South Park episode about Michael Jackson, wherein the boys teach MJ that childhood fantasies have to stop once he has his own kid. If only Matt Stone and Trey Parker had been consulted for this project! Instead, Battle of the Smithsonian mobilizes innumerable plot twists to keep Larry infantile, and the one that finally turned my annoyance with the film into anger was the last scene’s substitution of a wimpy, bookish museum visitor (Adams) for the surprisingly great female character of Earhart. Adams’ pseudo-biographic performance as the intrepid pilot is something like a noir femme fatale mixed with Cate Blanchet doing Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, while this new character is her nonthreatening antithesis, whom Larry can lead by the hand through the museum (and, surely, its sequels).

How often do we get a smart, adventurous and sexually aggressive female character in any blockbuster these days, not to mention one made for young boys? Even in Monsters vs. Aliens, as we discussed, the computer-generated female lead was completely de-sexualized (and nicknamed “Gigantosaurus,” not unlike Jedediah’s affectionate “Gigantor” for Larry). Larry gets his childhood fantasy of hanging out with his magical male friends and a non-threatening, non-magical girl “friend,” while the specter of adult sexuality flies back to a dusty D.C. basement. In a perfect world, the next film in the franchise would be set at the Museum of Sex, but I’m guessing that (like Jason Voorhees and The Leprachaun before it) this Fox fantasy of sex-less fatherhood is headed into orbit. Next stop: the Kennedy Space Center.

(Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox)