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Published: Friday, 12/22/2006

Movie review: Night at the Museum ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

At some point in the latter half of the previous century, though it's hard to say precisely when - probably (gradually) between the first stirring of the British Invasion and the dawn of Pac-Man - the natural history museum lost its fascination.

Not only for a generation that drags along its PlayStation Portables on grade-school field trips. But we got older, and if you've ever returned to a museum of your youth, you prob-ably saw those hallowed halls for what they truly were: full of intricate dioramas of wax natives and stuffed wildebeests, and if you're lucky, actual relics.

You remembered awe.

And got a snore. (Sorry.)

So, that said, Merry Christmas, dusty cavemen! Happy Hanukkah, grayish plaster brontosaur!

If nothing else (and there is very little else than a cute holiday blockbuster here), the new Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museum will reawaken our love affair with natural history museums - that is, it'll remind us there are natural history museums left. Indeed, in one of the less forced convergences of movie commerce and education, Night at the Museum opens today on a number of IMAX screens attached to history museums. Your nearest IMAX screen showing Night at the Museum, however, is not a museum but Showcase Cinemas Ann Arbor (actually on Carpenter Road in Ypsilanti). But if you have the chance to hit the movie and a museum - make it a long afternoon - absolutely attempt this.

They complement nicely.

Stiller plays Larry, and Larry is like many of us when it comes to history museums - he has fond memories but the awe, the history literally in front of him, seems dead. Larry is unlike many parents, though, in that he moves from get-rich scheme to get-rich scheme, and his life has become so tentative that even his young son suggests he should just get a real job - this is a kid whose fallback plan, if he doesn't make it to the NHL, is to become a commodities trader.

Anyway, all of that back history is like the forgettable parts of old Disney Suzanne Pleshette movies - the "emotional hook" you instinctively tune out. What matters is that Larry is hired as the night guard at the Natural History Museum in Manhattan, the grand one on Central Park West with the whales and tyrannosaurus rex bones. When the movie opens, no one is going to museums, says museum director Ricky Gervais (creator of The Office) - and seriously, museums must really be hurting if the venerable Natural History castle would allow its director to come off like a bureaucratic bumbler (played, in fact, by the modern embodiment of the office idiot).

There are clever casting touches throughout the picture: When Stiller goes to a job-placement service, his counselor is Anne Meara, Stiller's actual mom. (He thinks they've bonded; she regards him in stony silence.) Once a guard, he reports to Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and great character actor Bill Cobbs. (For those of us with bad-movie grudges, it's almost worth the ticket to see Mickey Rooney kick the snot out of Stiller, literally.) The cute docent is played by Carla Gugino, who is writing a 900-page dissertation on Sacajawea. But, alas, Larry can assist.

The first night on the job he falls asleep after a few minutes of bad improvisation with the museum intercom system. (The script actually doesn't seem to have a joke, just "Improv here.")

The next nights he finds himself trying to wrangle the exhibits. He grabs the docent. "You know how they say in certain museums history can come to life? Here, it actually can!" She doesn't believe him. What follows is a variation of the games history teachers have been playing with students for decades, only sillier and more fun.

If Larry of Brooklyn wants to survive being torn apart by Attila the Hun, he must read up on great conquerors. To enlist the help of Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), he must grasp that Teddy was not the fourth president. And how does one broker a truce between warring miniatures - American cowboys (led by Owen Wilson) and Romans (led by Steve Coogan) - when they fight night after night, without a purpose? ("But it's what we do to pass the time," Wilson whines.)

The movie has some fun with scale. (Tiny cowboys ram Stiller with a model locomotive.) I wish director Shawn Levy had noticed the similarities between the cavemen and Stiller - Stiller himself had fun with his Cro-Magnonlike brow line on his old Fox TV series. There are intricate rules (shades of Jumanji) and a lame back story that explains why the exhibits pop to life after hours. It's far too literal. But it wildly succeeds in making the museum, whether full of wax men or priceless antiquities, look like a place rich for discovery. It never does install a sense of wonder.

But curiosity - absolutely.



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