Rarely has so much talent gone to waste. The credits of “Night at the Museum” read like a who’s-who of comedy: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Paul Rudd and Robin Williams, to name a few. So where are the laughs? Buried, perhaps, beneath the endless reels of effects that have been heaped on a story rich with promise.
The premise is intriguing enough. Larry (Ben Stiller) is a divorced dad who takes a job as a security guard at the Museum of Natural History in New York, only to discover that the exhibits take on lives of their own come nightfall. Naturally, he is overwhelmed — on his first night alone, he is hunted by the skeletal remains of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Later, he awkwardly attempts to broker peace between a rambunctious cowboy (Owen Wilson) and an ill-tempered Roman centurion (Steve Coogan), aided by the shrewdest of negotiators, former president Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams).
The idea that the museum’s statues, artifacts and waxworks could spring to life in the wee hours, borrowed from a children’s book by Milan Trenc, lends itself to so many possibilities, but director Shawn Levy (“Cheaper By the Dozen 2”) doesn’t care to explore them. Instead, he is content to rely on visual effects that are technically impressive but, in the absence of an engaging story, strangely uninteresting.
The result? A film full of sound and fury, but little substance. There are slight pleasures — watching Stiller get slapped around by a feisty monkey, in one of the funniest sequences — but “Night at the Museum” squanders its inspiration and quickly settles into a monotonous groove of chase scenes and noisy mayhem. Coogan, whose wry deadpan was so effective in movies like “24 Hour Party People” and “Coffee and Cigarettes,” seems bored here. So are we.
Night at the Museum **
Starring Ben Stiller, Carla Gugino, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Ricky Gervais
Written by Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon, Milan Trenc
Directed by Shawn Levy
Running time 1 hour, 48 minutes