Night at the Museum

Ben Stiller and Robin Williams in Night at the Museum

 

 

One of Disney’s old standbys is the perky live-action comedy, of the sort they used to put out on the 1960s, invariably starring Dean Jones and a gaggle of pesky kids, plus a cute animal or two. These movies were cute and zippy and had a gee-whizz wholesomeness that was easy to mock but hard to hate. Night at the Museum drills right into that vein, and even gives a small part to Dick Van Dyke, king of Disney’s live-action magnum opus, Mary Poppins. But he’s not the star. Instead there’s an appropriately bumbling Ben Stiller fitting right into the Van Dyke mould, as the hapless, hopeless dad who takes a job at a Museum of Natural History, only to discover that at night the exhibits come to life, thanks to a magical ancient Egyptian tablet, or something. The support cast is strong: Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs as what must be the oldest security guards on the planet – they’re retiring, we’re told, but that still doesn’t quite explain how gents in their 80s are holding down jobs where they might be expected to get physical. Whatever. There’s also a bickering Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan as a diminutive cowboy and a miniature Roman centurion, Robin Williams as a statue of Teddy Roosevelt back to boombastic life, and Ricky Gervais who, aware of the John Cleese rule, it seems (acclaimed British comics often killing US films stone dead), plays his tiny role as the dorkish museum boss as someone who can’t speak.

You won’t like this if you’re hoping for sophisticated comedy, but it’s a fun piece of lightheardedness, done well, with the CG creations – a dinosaur running amok being a high point – never too threatening or convincing. I’m going to make obvious what a lot of critics seem to have missed about this movie – it’s for kids. Sure, a couple of jokes are in there for beleaguered parents in for the long haul, but it isn’t for grown-ups. Not even vaguely. The kids might not know who Teddy Roosevelt is, and they might wonder why the film seems so insistent on the importance of reading, but apart from that and the obviously downplayed icky love stuff with Carla Gugino, it’s clearly old school Disney that’s the target, and director Shawn Levy and team hit it. You wouldn’t want another one, though, would you?

 

Night at the Museum – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

Your Friends and Neighbors

Aaron Eckhart, Ben Stiller and Jason Patric in Your Friends & Neighbors

 

 

Like writer/director LaBute’s In The Company of Men, his 1997 debut, Your Friends and Neighbors deals with a theme that’s current in cinema – that all men are rubbish. LaBute focuses on three self-obsessed friends, travelling further into their psyches as the film progresses. And the further he travels, the shallower the trio appear. Contemporary gents, LaBute appears to be saying, have benefited enormously from the liberalising cultural shift of the 1960s, but these days instead of being high, they’re more high and dry.

For some people this film might be a bit preachy, a bit speechy, and it’s true that LaBute’s origins as a writer for the stage seem fairly evident. Perhaps the way for me to sell it is to describe it as a dyspeptic Woody Allen drama, except LaBute is prepared to venture beyond the bedroom door (a territory Allen never penetrates, if that’s the word, unless armed with an arsenal of jokes). Aaron Eckhart, Ben Stiller and Jason Patric (after Speed 2 this is revelatory stuff) are the three dudes, all dressed properly, in good jobs, used to the best. Amy Brenneman and Catherine Keener play Eckhart and Stiller’s other (definitely better) halves, with Patric and Nastassja Kinski as a pair of singletons spreading a little nastiness wherever they lay their libidinous heads.

LaBute has been out there, in the gyms and workplace eateries, the coffee bars and metros, and he’s noticed how bloody selfish people, especially men, seem to have become. And these are the winners in life! A great film for lovers of dark comedy in the Mamet style. Just don’t expect to be whistling once it’s over.

© Steve Morrissey 1999

 

Your Friends & Neighbors – at Amazon

 

 

 

Meet The Parents

Poor Photoshop skills add a little extra to the lie-detector scene from Meet the Parents

 

 

The notion of “upstaging” someone comes from the theatre. If you as an actor walk upstage, away from the auditorium, you force the person you’re addressing to turn their back on the audience. The audience can’t see the actor’s face, it can’t hear him/her that well either. It drives actors crazy. It’s a harder thing to nail down on film, but it’s something Robert De Niro is great at, especially when a comedian is involved. In Meet the Parents the funnyman in question is Ben Stiller, playing the poor sap back to “meet the parents” of his intended (Teri Polo). De Niro plays Jack Byrnes, the mutha of a father, subjecting Stiller’s character, Greg, to the sort of weekend that would have you waking up sweating for the rest of your life (“I have nipples, Greg, do you think you could milk me?”). De Niro the actor, meanwhile, is putting Stiller through something similar, the same sly wringer he used on Charles Grodin in Midnight Run, Jerry Lewis in King of Comedy, and Billy Crystal in Analyze This. It’s become a standard line against De Niro that his later work relies too heavily on mannerism – he’s acting rather than reacting. But watching him raise his game is always fascinating (Jennifer Lawrence forced him into doing it in Silver Linings Playbook). So sit back, enjoy the humour, but most of all watch the tussle as De Niro deploys every tic, gurn and volcanic pause in the book, utterly refusing to be outdone in a comedy by some wiseguy who tells jokes for a living.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Meet the Parents – at Amazon