Gabby: Welcome to the extended reign of The Indefinsibles. We traveled to the darkest depths of ancient history, and then came back to discuss…
Jeremy: Night at the Museum 2: Something Something Smithsonian. A film as educational as a Texas public education textbook and half as funny.
This is our second installment in our “Summer of Sequels” series. Why did you pick this movie, Gabby?
Gabby: Mainly I think it was a good film to demonstrate a type of box office yard stick. It might not be great, but there are some fun things about it. At least you didn’t totally waste the money you spent on the cinema ticket. There is also a discussion to be had as to the potential of the movie and how the final product fell short.
Brett: This isn’t the worst – the performances are fine and the movie is in focus. The script follows the three-act structure because professional screenwriters worked on it. The effects and lighting are fine. It’s just, as a whole, not that good. It is less than the sum of its parts. We could sell Stiller for what the whole movie is worth. It’s kind of dull, the story is kind of stupid. Coming in without seeing the first one, it took me nearly 15 minutes to learn the rules. And it just didn’t make much of an impact either way. And that’s actually the main problem.
It’s not a good-bad movie, because I couldn’t make fun of the bad performances or cheesy production values. It wasn’t a movie I liked despite its flaws. And that makes it a worse movie than say… Omaha: The Movie or Amazing Spider-Man 2. Those are fascinating and amazing messes. One is a first time director that didn’t know quite what he was doing and the other is just such a train wreck.
My point is that what makes a bad-bad movie is that it’s boring. That’s the one big sin a piece of entertainment can commit. The worst thing about this movie is that I barely noticed it. If we didn’t plan on discussing it afterwards, I probably would have never thought about it again an hour after it was done.
Jeremy: For the most part, we’re on the same page. Since I’ve never seen the first Night at the Museum, I tried to imagine it’s 2009 and I’m only watching this at the theater because I’m a good friend/boyfriend/older brother. Would I be confused and miserable throughout? The answer’s “no.” With this many talented, funny people sharing the screen, some good material is invariably going to seep through. This is a weird middle ground you rarely get in movies: nobody’s phoning it in, but no one’s working that hard, either.
Like you said, Brett, this is a total product. The writers, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, are two funny guys who’ve made a second career out of writing big studio comedies designed to be studio note and test screening proof. They have no illusions about what they’re writing. And if that puts food on their table so they can create material they care about, I’m OK with that.
So, yeah, no strong feelings about this movie – except I wish it was funnier and cared about history or science or anything besides pacifying the masses. It actually does make me want to see the original. I can imagine a sweeter – if no less mercenary – version of this story about an average Joe with big dreams getting a kick in the pants after spending a night with these historical figures.
So let’s start with this: how weird is Ben Stiller’s arc in this movie? I’m assuming his dream of becoming a successful inventor came true at the end of the first movie. The sequel bends over backwards to get him back in a security guard outfit, so he can realize he was happier as a night watchman.
Brett: And that was such an odd plot point, because it really wasn’t earned or defined in any way. They just mention he’s not happy, but there isn’t a sign of it. He doesn’t seem unhappy. He doesn’t seem unfulfilled. And you know, fuck this movie for trotting out the “if you’re successful you must really be miserable” trope. I really hate that one.
Jeremy: Yeah, he’s consumed in work and obliviously being kind of a dick. Not a full dick, mind you. Just a bit of a dick. Not even a half-shaft. It’s probably not worth digging too deeply into this film’s messages, but I also dislike movies that say you can either be successful or you can be happy.
It’s like Hollywood’s afraid we won’t root for a character who is both. I‘m OK with the setup that he’s too focused on his job, but can’t he end up running his business and supporting the museum? He doesn’t need to sell his business to be a patron. If he needs an excuse to visit his magic friends there, he should start selling his glow in the dark flashlights in the gift shop.
Gabby: The Ben Stiller character arc is a big flaw in this film. I rewatched the first one before I rewatched this to prepare a bit. And the first one ends with him as a night guard. He is a man with ideas for an invention or two, but never really followed anything through. This arc works in that film. The first film also tells him the importance of learning his history. In the second one, he doesn’t even seem to care about meeting Amelia Earhart or learning about the things she is famous for.
The other problem I have with this film is it brings back characters from the first movie and leaves some of them in a big crate for the majority of the film. A new character, Colonel Custer, joins them, who is the one given the majority of the material inside the crate. This makes it almost nonsensical to have those characters back at all.
The talent in this movie maybe should have been let free a bit more. As the plot is total nonsense anyway. I did love that Robin Williams bit about ‘New York Teddy.’
Jeremy: Yeah, it amazed me that most of the supporting cast wasn’t written out entirely, based on how little they have to do here. I do like Bill Hader’s Custer. I’m not sure how much Hader improvised, because his bits are among the strongest in the movie. They had a funny idea and fully committed to the bit. That’s rare in this film.
Brett: I thought Amy Adams also committed to the part, I just thought that part was terrible. Hank Azaria got the broad outlines of the script and then just riffed on it. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn his part was mostly made up on set.
Robin Williams did a pretty good job, with what he was given to do. Ben Stiller was… well… he was there. I have never loved him, but I have never felt he wasn’t doing the best he can. This is what makes the movie so bad in my mind, because we are just so “Meh” about it.
There aren’t a lot of “What the fuck?” moments. There’s only a few complaints about how their history is badly off, or how they picked most of Amy’s lines by grabbing a slang dictionary and picking terms at random.
Gabby: I love Amy Adams in this. She is kind of why I liked this. I want to see the movie she was going for, with her part being better written. It is Amelia Earhart for goodness sake, the people writing this had history books, documentaries and the internet after all.
I reimagined this movie at some point because I feel something is there, but a better framework was needed in order to support that character and give her the movie she deserves. Amy Adams is so earnest, adorable and enthusiastic I just can’t help love her playing a fantastic and iconic historical figure. Ben Stiller is fine. Hank Azaria is such a life raft for the messy structure by just having fun. He delivers his lines with flair; ‘You’re evil, you’re asthmatic…’
Jeremy: I’m glad you brought up the bit with the bust of Teddy Roosevelt, Gabby. It’s the quintessential scene of this movie for me. It’s a great idea with a lot of potential, and nowhere near as funny as it should be. They’re coasting on the premise. It’s one of many scenes where I was thinking, “You had the premise, you had the structure. Why didn’t you keep working on the jokes?
Brett: I wonder if they thought the movie was working when they were on set. This was probably one of those movies where everyone had a lot of fun filming. Everyone is a pro, everyone did their job, and there was likely a lot of laughs during every take.
I am reminded of a story Terry Gilliam told on the commentary for Monty Python and Holy Grail. He said that during the editing, Terry Jones would pick takes that weren’t quite as funny as the ones Gilliam picked. He said Jones was always wrapped up in the moment where they were on set and that one take made them laugh the hardest while filming. But Gilliam always said that those weren’t the best takes and that Jones was remembering the fun they had on set, rather then looking at what’s in the frame on the screen.
Since I heard that story, I have often found times where I have been watching a subpar movie and thought, “You went for the take that made you laugh harder while filming, rather than the one that works in the movie.”
This movie is an example. I would bet that Hank Azaria was making everyone on set piss themselves with laughter. I would bet that they had to stuff socks in their mouths not to ruin the bits with Custer. I would even bet they applauded every time Amy Adams rattled off one of those chains of slang-filled dialogue. You can sort of see the places where this production was a hell of a lot of fun.
The problem is, very little of that fun translates to the screen.
Jeremy: I’d never heard that story about Holy Grail before. A good piece of wisdom for all of us endeavoring to be funny. Comedy’s a discipline that requires objectivity, like any other art form.
Back to Amy Adams for a moment: I always enjoy seeing her in movies, but her Amelia Earhart didn’t do a lot for me. She’s doing what she can – no one working today does plucky better than her. I get where they were going with her character: live in the moment, have an adventure. The problem is Ben Stiller’s already doing that. He just needs to put down his phone and have dinner with his kid now and again.
I don’t think it would fit the rules, but I first thought Amy Adams would keep flying at the end so she could keep outracing the dawn, instead of flying back to the Smithsonian. And how lame is the ending, with Ben Stiller bumping into her playing another character?
Brett: They literally stole the ending of the remake of Bedazzled.
Gabby: Or One Touch of Venus. Which has a similar but much better executed version of that ending. I love One Touch of Venus. These movies should have more of what it had.
Jeremy: Never seen either of those movies, but it’s a well-used trope. I wouldn’t mind it in the slightest if it made sense within the narrative.
And I didn’t have the same problems with Ben Stiller that you did, Brett. When it comes to finding the right role that suits his talents, he reminds me of Steve Martin. They both often play overly straight-laced schmoes or wild, crazy guys. Their best roles are in a narrow middle ground where they get to be a little of both. This part’s almost in that middle ground, but he rarely gets a good line. On the other hand, he’s a good sport and shares the screen well with everyone who gets to cut loose, such as Hank Azaria, who’s my favorite part of the movie.
Granted, anyone doing a Boris Karloff impression that good is going to get my full attention. (And ’90s Simpsons is practically a religion for me.) Azaria’s live-action roles are often underappreciated because he is so great at doing those voices. I’m glad there’s something more to the character besides the voice. I dig the idea that he wants to conquer the world… but wants someone else to do the conquering while he sits in his throne room. Again, I’m thinking, “Oh! It’s so close. You’re almost there, gang. Just keeping working the material and stick the landing.”
And Jesus, how unnecessary are Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon, and Al Capone? Christopher Guest gets a moment or two to do his thing as Ivan the Terrible, which is always welcome. The Napoleon gags are cheap and obvious. And did they even bother writing a joke for Al Capone?
It doesn’t matter. They’re taking time away from Azaria and the returning cast. I guess it could’ve worked if Azaria recruited them one at a time, and they each had their own setpiece where they attempted to capture Stiller and Adams. That would make the Darth Vader/Oscar the Grouch scene funnier – like Azaria’s running out of bad guys and desperately exploring his remaining options. Despite being obvious fan service, that scene is funny – thanks to Azaria’s delivery. And I’m not just saying that as a huge Star Wars fan.
One last thought about the performances from me. This was, I think, the first time I’ve watched a Robin Williams performance since his death. That hit me a lot harder than expected.
Brett: His opening performance particularly, when he first gives Ben Stiller the fatherly advice and is cut off before he finishes was just sort of… I’m really glad nothing important happened for a minute or two after that because I needed a moment to myself.
Jeremy: My feelings about Robin Williams grew more complicated over the last decade, but he’ll always be one of my comedy heroes.
Gabby: I had a similiar reaction to that fatherly advice bit also Brett. When talking about my emotions around Robin Williams’ death, I can’t say it better than I did here with my friend, and sometimes co writer, Josh Pearlman. He was a brilliant talent and I was very overcome with emotion when he died. The first movie too was a bit hard for me, but it gave him much more to do. The first movie was much better, from this point of view, as he was given more room to just be an entertaining version of Teddy Roosevelt. It doesn’t ring true to me when Teddy in the second movie tells Ben Stiller what he really was going to say. It definitley felt like it was leading to a sincere touching moment. Maybe that was a studio note to make the ending more peppy.
When it comes to studio entertainment, this one really hits middle of the road for me.
Jeremy: This is the kind of calculated studio product I typically hate. To my surprise, I didn’t hate this. It’s factory-built for a family movie night or to have on in the background during Christmas Day – something everyone can’t really complain about and can enjoy to some degree. And that’s how I’d describe my experience with it: I enjoyed it to a small degree.
Gabby: That is it Jeremy. That is what I feel. I wanted to choose this film as I felt there was hate for something that is kind of harmless and a bit of fun. I have had a bit of trouble talking about it because of having no strong feelings about it. That might be my biggest problem with it. The fact I see a better movie to be made here. But what came out was fine. A background movie.
Brett: I disagree to an extent. I found it irritating, and after a while the stereotypes starting blasting away my ability to enjoy it. We didn’t get into the stereotypes much. But I did make the tweet that was basically “This movie is a cavalcade of outdated stereotypes. “
Gabby: I think it is more paint by numbers filmmaking. Where stereotypes are used instead of characters merely to support the flimsy plot. They are reliant on star power, charisma and delivery to develop the film further. When a blockbuster doesn’t have those charms, you can get something like The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, where everything is flat and dull, and you really want the movie to end. However, as long as you get people involved with some good will and sense of fun then the film can end up with something dynamic at least, that offers a performance as enjoyable as Hank Azaria’s for instance.
Jeremy: Yeah, there’s no agenda here. Third grade school plays cover more historical ground than this movie. But, yeah, there’s a better version of this story that delves into history, which uses how messy, horrible, and wonderful it is to fuel the conflict, instead of chasing after a magical tablet.
Brett: I… just don’t care about this movie. I can’t work up the enthusiasm to hate it or hurl vitriol at it. I didn’t pay a lot to see it though – and I will have the moment where Steve Coogan rode in on a squirrel emblazoned on my soul for all time. That’s something I had never seen before, so it’s like Mad Max: Fury Road in that respect. HA! Didn’t see me linking those two movies, did you?
Jeremy: And with that, thanks for reading, everyone. We’ll finish our “Summer of Sequels” series soon with my pick, House II: The Second Story. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter. We livetweet every movie we cover in advance of discussing them. Also, we’d love to chat about these movies – or movies and pop culture, in general – in our comments section or on social media.
See you soon, knuckleheads. Go watch a movie.