After a too-affectionate titles sequence reminding the audience of the charms of the first movie, and a very slow start to induct newcomers into the premise of the franchise without actually explaining it very well, the movie wisely trades Central Park for the Washington Mall so the canvas can expand to the multi-museum institution of the Smithsonian. Unfortunately this excess of riches multiplies the missed opportunities. I felt the Air and Space Museum was underexploited but there’s only so much you can pack into 105 minutes.
It’s made up for by other well seized opportunities, however, such as the National Gallery of Art where Ben Stiller discovers that paintings and photographs can not only come to life, but also be jumped into. The film’s most creative shot, all too fleeting, is a glimpse from inside a photograph looking back through the frame into the real world. I would have been more than content if the film had spent the rest of its time jumping in and out of famous paintings, but I can’t blame anyone for not making a completely different movie.
Written by Reno 911! partners Thomas Lennon (recently getting more mainstream screen time in I Love You, Man and 17 Again) and Robert Ben Garant, both of whom cameo as the Wright brothers, the Night at the Museum films are successful versions of the mash-up genre to which the Scary/Date/Disaster Movies have given such a bad rep. To their credit, NATM2 succumbs only once to the easy bait of mocking recent films, with a miniature parody of a 300-style fight scene, but it is funny because Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan are so earnest yet ineffectual. In other words, it works because there are characters behind the superficial film reference.
Part of the first movie’s success was that Ben Stiller is always best as a straight man for others to play off of (There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents) instead of as a zany cartoon (Dodgeball, Tropic Thunder). The lone exception to this, Zoolander, works so well because he is the epitome of the straight man at whose expense the joke always is (to paraphrase Winston Churchill).
Likewise here, what keeps NATM2 fun are the characters brought to life (har har) by three excellent newcomers: Hank Azaria as a megalomaniacal Pharaoh who sounds suspiciously like Stewie Griffin (I suppose it’s logical that the only voices the Simpsons regular hasn’t done before must be those on The Family Guy); Bill Hader (Seth Rogan’s patrol partner in Superbad) as the strategically incompetent General Custer with a chance for personal if not public redemption; and Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart, enthusiastically channelling Katherine Hepburn undiluted and direct from Bringing Up Baby. To say she is radiant or luminescent would be redundant since Adams seems incapable of playing a role any other way, but this one is unique for her insofar as her jodhpurs deserve a co-starring credit.
Robert Downey Jr.’s nomination this year for a comedy like Tropic Thunder makes me hopeful that Adams could be nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2010. I can understand why some have tired of her alleged shtick, but she makes it seem so genuine that I can’t help but buy it hook, line, and sinker. As Sally Hawkins demonstrated last year in Happy-Go-Lucky, if making a perky, irrepressibly optimistic character likeable isn’t an acting achievement, I don’t know what is.