Ben Stiller has founded his career on playing hangdog, sensitive guys, their shoulders drawn up to their ears in a gesture of perpetual apology. Despite a multimillion-dollar net worth, Stiller remains the pitiful little monkey in the organ grinder's act.
The best films are the ones like the winning, madcap Night at the Museum that take advantage of Stiller's most endearing persona as the good-natured slacker drop-kicked by some bullying alpha male.
In Meet the Parents, Stiller's nemesis was a father-of-the-bride coiled with rage at the sorry sack of masculinity his daughter had dropped on his doorstep. In Night at the Museum, Stiller's nemesis is a bitch-slapping capuchin monkey whose startled expression and miniature features give it an uncanny resemblance to the Olsen twins.
Larry Daley (Stiller) is a divorced dad trying desperately to win back his young son Nick's (Jake Cherry) respect. His rival is a Wall Street Master of the Universe who doesn't need a phallus as a show of power, but instead wears a belt festooned with a Blackberry and cell phone that inspires Larry to call him "the Batman of stockbrokers."
Like the struggling dad in The Pursuit of Happyness, Larry is a father still chasing rainbows. But in movie logic, dreamers like Larry are an open portal to chaos and whimsy. His dreaminess is what makes him the perfect foil for the imaginative lunacy that ensues in director Shawn Levy's inspired adventure yarn.
At his ex-wife's behest, Larry scores a job as night watchman at the Museum of Natural History. He is schooled in the order of the flashlight and the polyester uniform by a trio of retiring night watchmen played by Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cobbs and Mickey Rooney -- whose red-faced, bald-headed fury suggests a very angry penis.
These comic codgers are just a taste of the crackerjack comic types who keep popping out of the woodwork like ducks in a fairground shooting gallery, from "The Office"'s Ricky Gervais as a typically officious, clueless museum boss to an uncredited Owen Wilson as a miniature diorama Brokeback cowboy Jedidiah, equal parts swagger and sensitivity with a navel-gazer's awareness of his own "impotent rage."
On his first night on the job, as anyone who has watched the movie trailer knows, Larry must assume a Kofi Annan role in trying to tame the peeing and raging male egos of the monkeys, as well as the dinosaur skeletons, Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), cavemen and tiny soldiers who come alive each night.
Night at the Museum is adapted from Milan Trenc's 1993 children's book and in the usual storybook formula -- like Hansel and Gretel laying a trail of bread crumbs or the children following the board game rules in Jumanji -- Larry must employ pluck and a highly specific set of rules to help control the chaos.
Night at the Museum is a smartly written, enjoyably goofy frolic of comic madness that relies on parallel but at times intersecting rivers of adult- and child-directed humor for its not insignificant spit takes and convulsive giggles. Like the best comic blockbusters, the film strikes a balance with its wiseacre grown-up sensibility that never upsets the film's apple cart of childish enchantment and veneer of innocence.
Many of the adult-style yuks are generated from a subtext of very Stillerian male anxiety as this hapless overgrown kid tries desperately to act like a grown-up even when reality is giving him a succession of conceptual wedgies in the form of Lilliputian Mayans spitting poison darts, party-animal cavemen and a cocky Roman soldier (Steve Coogan) who has a bone to pick with the equally testosterone-fueled Jedidiah.
But in Night at the Museum, male sensitivity rules the day and triumphs over macho chaos -- sweet-talking even Attila the Hun into facing his inner child and convincing a host of warmongering historical figures to cool their jets and work toward the common good.
An appropriate holiday lesson for children and adults alike.