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By Rick Kisonak | May 28, 2009

The original “Night at the Museum” (2006) took place in the American Museum of Natural History. Its sequel is set in the galleries of the Smithsonian. Together, these two frantic, pandering productions could easily outfit a third repository: The Museum of Stupid Movie Clichés.

Even by Hollywood sequel standards, this is lazily conceived, cynically recycled stuff. Since we last had the pleasure of his company, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) has left his job as a night guard and started a company. Just like that he’s become fantastically rich hawking his inventions on infomercials. Now there’s a cultural target that hasn’t already been spoofed to death.

One day after shooting a spot with George Foreman (Get it? Foreman really makes infomercials so it’s hilarious the movie’s creators hired him to appear in this fake one), Larry decides out of the blue to visit his former place of employment and finds it in the midst of renovation. Much of its old collection, he learns, is in the process of being crated up and carted off to the Smithsonian’s National Archives in order to make way for gimmicky new holographic versions and interactive exhibits designed to hold the attention of media-addicted kids.

At once, Larry realizes what he must do: Leave his preteen son behind in New York, rush to Washington, D.C. and rescue his artifactual friends from an eternity in storage. The first challenge he faces once there is getting access to the Archives. They’re off limits to visitors, so the resourceful guard-turned-gazillionaire does what any movie hero would do in his situation. He steals an ID badge from a Smithsonian night watchman and makes his way to that room every picture like this has – the room filled with uniforms just waiting to be used by infiltrators as disguises. Have you once come across that room in real life?

To be fair, I should mention that the night watchman whose ID Stiller steals is played by Jonah Hill and the interaction between the two (unfortunately the only scene in which Hill appears) does provide every one of the film’s five funny minutes. It seems highly likely that, when the DVD is released, the out takes from this largely improvised sequence alone will be good for minimally triple the laughs in the rest of the sequel. The scene comes early on. Savor it. Put down the Milk Duds. Focus your full attention. The next hour and a half will be merriment-free.

Once he’s made his way unchallenged into the bowels of the building, it isn’t long before Larry gets his hands on the magic Egyptian tablet that brought his collectible cohorts to nocturnal life last time around. He uses it to reanimate returning characters Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), Sacajawea (Mizou Peck), miniature cowboy Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson), and tiny Roman pal Octavius (Steve Coogan) along with a gaggle of grunting Neanderthals. (Do you really care who plays these guys?)

The happy reunion is cut short, however, by the tablet-related but more or less unexplained arrival of a party-pooping pharaoh by the name of Kahmunrah and played by a lisping Hank Azaria. You’ll never guess his evil plan: Yup, he wants to take over the world and, to this end, commandeers the tablet long enough to bring to life a trio of henchmen – Napoleon (Alain Chabat), Al Capone (Jon Bernthal), and Christopher Guest in the role of Ivan the Terrible…and terrible, I’m afraid, doesn’t begin to cover it. What a sad sight to see an artist of his caliber mixed up in a movie as mindless as this. He has maybe three lines – none of which are funny in the least – and literally looks lost.

Things only get more chaotic and less comic from there as the film’s creators attempt to compensate for the shortage of yucks with an infusion of ever more new characters. Any plot line there was to begin with degenerates into a chuckleheaded face off between Larry’s crew and that of Azaria’s over-the-top demigod. It’s like “The Mummy” as envisioned by the Stooges.

Returning director Shawn Levy sends in the troops – Bill Hader as General Custer, Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart, a giant Lincoln who’s vacated his chair at the Memorial to lend a giant hand, Rodin’s The Thinker (who must think it curious to find himself stateside, since he’s on permanent display in Paris) on top of a couple of monkeys (and you know a comedy’s in trouble when it stoops to simians). But it’s a lost cause. All the famous dead people and statues in the world can’t distract from the facts that the mayhem here is more moronic than madcap and the movie squanders some of the finest comic talent in the business. It requires a special gift to assemble a cast which includes Stiller, Hill, Wilson, Hader, and Guest and somehow manage to keep the laugh count this low.

I don’t know; maybe if you’re like five, regard a lisp as the height of humor, and have never seen CGI creatures parade across a big screen before, the new “Night at the Museum” might possibly be worth your time. What else have you got to do? The rest of us no doubt have better things and are not likely to much miss or even recall it once the day comes when this most scattershot, scatterbrained series is history.

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