February 07, 2011 12:46pm EST
When a dramedy gets too sentimental it quickly becomes sappy but with the right balance – and the right actors – it can work well enough to entertain on multiple levels. Alexander Payne’s Sideways is a perfect example of tonal equality; bittersweet in every sense of the word but outright hilarious when the comedy gets going. I thought the best qualities of his direction would carry over into his latest production the recent Sundance entry Cedar Rapids. While his influence as producer is identifiable (particularly in its score) director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) made a more conventional film than I expected to see.
Our story begins in Brown Valley Wisconsin where the dignified Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) works lives and loves his former 7th Grade teacher (a dull Sigourney Weaver). When the top dog at the insurance company he works for dies it’s up to him to represent at a do-or-die insurance convention in Cedar Rapids Iowa a bustling metropolis compared to the small town he’s never left. Once there he befriends a pair of agents (Isaiah Whitlock Jr. and John C. Reilly) cavorts with another (Anne Heche) and parties with a local prostitute (Alia Shawkat). When it comes down to business however he learns quickly that the insurance racket isn’t the noble industry he once thought it was.
Though it has some heart the film doesn’t hit the funny bone like its trailer teased. The biggest laughs don’t come organically; instead Reilly’s crass Dean Ziegler (the best part of the movie) spews them from every orifice he exposes. Most of the other jokes are flat including the bulk of Helms’. Lippe’s naivety is all too reminiscent of Andy Bernard his beloved character on The Office and though you’d think that would be a good thing it just feels stale. Heche gives the best performance of all portraying a melancholy working mother who’s both vulnerable and independent but her character doesn’t have much effect on the narrative. The most fun comes via a series of supporting roles and cameo’s from the likes of Thomas Lennon Stephen Root Rob Corddry Kurtwood Smith and Mike O’Malley but none of them have enough screen time to leave a lasting impression.
Lack of humor aside the film suffers most from trying to tackle too many topics at once. Screenwriter Phil Johnston stuffs many themes into the 87-minute feature including the growth of the man-child (an indie cliché at this point) corporate corruption and separation of church and office but no single subject is developed enough to care about. Had the filmmakers stuck to their guns and delivered an all-out comedy be it conventional or quirky Cedar Rapids would be easier to endure.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
This follow-up to the 2006 smash hit Night at the Museum picks up shortly after the events of the first film with one-time museum security guard Larry Daley now living the life of a famous inventor. One night he decides to pay a visit to his old haunt the Museum of Natural History where he discovers that some of his favorite exhibits (and old not-so-inanimate friends) have been labeled as “out of date” and are being shipped off to storage at the Smithsonian Institute archives. In no time he gets a distress call from miniature cowboy Jedediah who informs Larry that a group of history’s most notorious evil personalities including Ivan the Terrible Napoleon Bonaparte and Al Capone are hatching a conspiracy. Together with their ringleader the 3000-year-old Egyptian pharaoh Kahmunrah they plan to take over the Smithsonian and after that the world. Larry springs quickly into action teaming up with Amelia Earhart and tries to save his old friends — and perhaps the planet — from the insidious invaders who’ve awakened from their slumber.
WHO’S IN IT?
Ben Stiller returns as Larry playing straight man once again to a legion of historical figures including new and returning characters. Back from the original are Robin Williams as a spirited Teddy Roosevelt Owen Wilson as Jedediah Smith Steve Coogan as the Roman emperor Octavius Patrick Gallagher as Attila the Hun and Mizuo Peck as Sacajawea. Ricky Gervais again appears briefly at the start and finish as museum curator Dr. McPhee. Welcome additions include a lively Amy Adams as the famed female flyer Earhart and a very funny Bill Hader (TV's Saturday Night Live) as an insecure General Custer. Christopher Guest plays Ivan the Terrible while Alain Chabat has lots of fun as Napoleon. Jon Bernthal’s Al Capone meanwhile is cleverly shot and isolated in vivid black and white. Best of all by a mile — and the real reason to see Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian — is Hank Azaria who plays Kahmunrah with brilliant comic timing and an affected speech pattern that’s highly amusing. The multi-talented Azaria (The Simpsons) provides the voices for two new computer-enhanced characters: a towering Abraham Lincoln and Rodin’s sculpture of The Thinker. Jonah Hill also shows up in an early scene as a Smithsonian security guard who confronts Stiller — a subplot that goes nowhere.
Although this follow-up suffers from a severe case of “sequelitis ” director Shawn Levy knows what makes this formula work for kids. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian deserves props as the rare studio blockbuster intent on actually providing a little education by making these important historical personalities come to such vivid life. Use of photos and paintings from the adjacent museums is the most inventive new wrinkle serving as a clever interactive device for Stiller to use throughout the flick.
The screenplay (again by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) rehashes a lot of what was fresh in the first film and the result feels roboticly recycled. Levy’s direction seems rushed at times as if the filmmakers are afraid anyone with an attention span beyond 30 seconds. Kids will eat this up but aside from Azaria there aren’t many laughs for Mom Dad and older siblings.
For pure visual-effects wizardry and wonder you can’t beat the gang’s arrival at the Air and Space Museum where the production actually shot for a week. It’s awe-inspiring. Amelia Earhart’s encounter there with the African-American Tuskegee Airmen is also a swell touch.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Multiplex but drop the kids off and go shopping instead.