Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I will reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply under appreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
Raise your hand if you need a bit of a pick-me-up.
Yeah, no surprise there. Everyone seems to be having a rough go of it these days. Fortunately, the cinema is always there to provide a much-needed escape from the taxing stressors of life. When every hour of 2017 seems to inspire more anxiety than the last, it can be psychologically beneficial to disappear into a film for a little while – to be brought to life in another setting, and to chuckle appreciatively at Ben Stiller getting slapped around by a capuchin monkey. (…For example.)
One movie franchise that always warms my heart and afflicts me with an incurable case of the giggles is the Night at the Museum trilogy, directed by Shawn Levy (now widely known for producing Netflix’s hit ‘80s nostalgia trip Stranger Things). All three films present pure, heartwarming fun, but the third in the trilogy, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, earns my pick this month because it contains one of my single favorite comedy bits of all time. (More on that later.)
Principal screenwriting credit goes to David Guion and Michael Handelman, but Secret of the Tomb’s stacked cast of comedy veterans deserve accolades – and certainly garner the belly laughs – for their rip-roaring witticisms and wry, pitch-perfect line deliveries. Levy encourages improv on his sets, and when your movie spotlights actors like Robin Williams, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Rebel Wilson, and Ricky Gervais, how could you not let them run as wild as the museum displays come to life?
In the first Night at the Museum movie, released in 2006, Larry Daley (Stiller) is a divorced dad who can’t hold down a job until a retiring night guard at the Museum of Natural History (played by the ever charming Dick Van Dyke) encourages Larry to take over his position. Larry quickly learns about the museum’s “tablet of Ahkmenrah,” which magically brings the museum displays to life as soon as the sun goes down. Naturally, historical shenanigans ensue.
Secret of the Tomb finds Larry in the unenviable position of leading the festivities for the grand re-opening of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium. Fortunately, Larry has a trick up his sleeve: he’s enlisted his re-animated buddies to perform an opening number for the assembled VIP clientele, who believe the experience to be an elaborate display of special effects. But as soon as the presentation begins, it falls apart – the verbose and eloquent Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) stutters to a halt, Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher) blows a gasket, and all hell breaks loose. It turns out the magical tablet of Ahkmenrah is rotting away, and if it continues to do so, Larry’s museum buddies will go back to being inanimate museum displays forever. To figure out how to stop the curse, Larry must bring the tablet to the British Museum in London and sneak in after hours in order to chat with the Pharaoh who commissioned the production of the tablet all those millennia ago.
Along for the adventure are Teddy Roosevelt, Sacagawea (Mizuo Peck, who unfortunately does not have much to do in this film), Attila the Hun, a Larry-lookalike caveman called Laaa (also played by Ben Stiller), the young Pharaoh Ahkmenrah himself (played by Rami Malek who is actually of Egyptian descent and now stars as the bug-eyed lead in USA’s Mr. Robot), and Larry’s son, Nicky (Skyler Gisondo, who admirably holds his own with such comedic heavyweights). Odd couple Jedediah (Owen Wilson), a cowboy diorama miniature, and Octavius (Steve Coogan), a Roman general miniature, end up sidetracked by their own misadventure, though they are eventually rescued by an iPhone-wielding capuchin monkey, also a returning member of the Natural History Museum crew.
Without a doubt, the best part of Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb is the cast. Ben Stiller is a national treasure, even when he’s playing a jabbering, prehistoric caveman copy of himself. As Jedediah and Octavius, Wilson and Coogan’s Abbott-and-Costello-esque exchanges are always a delight. Franchise newbie Rebel Wilson steals the show with her brief performance as the British Museum’s hilariously loopy night guard named Tilly, and Dan Stevens as Sir Lancelot on a quest for the Holy Grail is so Dan Stevens.
There is one scene in particular that stands out as a marvel of on-the-mark humor and a masterclass of comedic delivery. Behold:
This scene is referring to the holiday of Passover, and the whole exchange is Jewish humor at its finest. The film engages in some meta comedy when Stiller’s character explains that he’s “half-Irish, half-Jewish” – Stiller himself is the son of Jewish comedian Jerry Stiller and the Irish-born Anne Meara. But while Stiller has the honor of delivering the kicker – “We have dinner once a year and talk about it. It’s a big deal” – the esteemed Ben Kingsley (always at the ready for Hollywood’s next ethnically ambiguous role) and Indian actress Anjali Jay (recently in Power Rangers) sell every beat of the scene with their perfectly coordinated obliviousness.
Then, of course, there’s Robin Williams. Secret of the Tomb marks Williams’s final onscreen appearance before his death – the movie was released four months after Williams passed away – and the result is an inescapably bittersweet performance, one that feels, fittingly, quintessentially Robin. As the 26th president of the United States, Williams is jovial, courageous, and kind. Though he’s mostly relegated to a background character in this third installation of Night at the Museum, the film’s ending, and his character’s ending, feel ethereally fitting: after Larry leaves the tablet in its rightful place in the British Museum, the New York displays recognize and accept that they will return indefinitely to their inanimate, waxen forms. In his final moments of consciousness, Teddy turns to a gloomy Larry and says, “Smile, my boy! It’s sunrise.” And indeed, it is.
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb offers a rollicking good time, with a well-paced script and funky action scenes, including a game of monkey-in-the-middle that takes place in an M. C. Escher painting come to life. But the movie is also unexpectedly heartwarming – well, unexpected only if you’re unfamiliar with Shawn Levy’s other works, such as 2011’s Real Steel.
Growing up is hard, and change is scary. This is a common storytelling theme… but also an important one. And in a clever twist, it is not Larry’s son who needs to learn this lesson, but Larry himself. Scattered among the triceratops chase scenes and the misadventures of dream team Jedediah and Octavius are snippets of conversation – always infused with sparkling cheer – in which Larry expresses his reservations about letting Nicky go off on his own. Thanks to Larry’s interactions with his alternate caveman self Laa, as well as some timely wisdom from Teddy Roosevelt, Larry eventually learns what his museum display buddies knew all along: sometimes, you have to let go.
Still, with a movie like Secret of the Tomb, it always boils down to the laughs. Gags involving the capuchin monkey and Laaa the caveman are easy hits with younger audiences, but the film’s farcical use of recognizable scores like “Also Sprach Zarathustra” of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the theme from Psycho imbue it with a particularly meta brand of humor that tickles the funny bones of older viewers as well. And when Hugh Jackman and Alice Eve appear playing… Hugh Jackman and Alice Eve, the result is an extended sketch replete with self-effacing comedy and an immensely satisfying Wolverine reference.
And… Rebel Wilson, people. When Larry leaves the tablet at the British Museum, he knows exactly what it’ll mean for the displays at the museum – and for the night guard whose shifts were previously categorized by long, dull stretches of nothingness. Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb certainly paves the way for the inevitable reboot. And, hey, if it stars Rebel Wilson as the new night guard? Count me in.