It's pretty rare for a movie to evoke laughter and delight for audiences both young and old, but Night at the Museum pulls it off. The film stars Ben Stiller as Larry, a divorced dad who's reluctantly given up his dream of entrepreneurial stardom to take a position as the night watchman of the New York Natural History Museum so he can provide more stability for his son. If the sound of an inanely sweet family-oriented comedy makes you want to wretch, however, you have nothing to fear. Night at the Museum occupies itself with Larry's personal story just enough for you to follow him on his wild ride.
This film doesn't kid itself: you don't see a movie about a museum where the dinosaurs and mummies spring to life at night because you want to learn a heartwarming lesson. What you want from this kind of fantastical adventure is a couple hours of fun, and this is Night at the Museum's brilliantly simple secret to success. It skips many of the sappy and contrived clichés of the PG realm and doesn't spend too much time revisiting Larry's home life. Instead, the film lets Stiller (along with straight-man co-stars Carla Gugino and Jake Cherry) bring Larry to life through his reactions to what you came to the movie for in the first place: the magic.
Stiller is a delight in this regard, at long-last finding a comedic balance between his squeamish, embarrassment-comedy side (à la Meet the Parents) and his over-the-top, bombastic-farce side (à la Dodgeball). With just enough restraint to play the foil for the funny and enchanting special-effects ensemble, he conjures up an average guy we can both laugh at and cheer for -- all while exercising a great skill at physical comedy, of which there is plenty. Stiller throws himself into dives, pratfalls, and chases with impressive energy and deft control (suggesting that he must be in seriously good shape). But along with all the slapstick you'd expect from an adventure comedy, Night at the Museum also benefits from the ironic wit and smart satire of screenwriter Ben Garant (Reno 911!). The result is a clever trick: while your grown-up side is sated with the kind of dry humor that marks Stiller's collaborations with Owen Wilson (who co-stars as a miniature cowboy from an Old West diorama, but spends most of his screen time feuding with Steve Coogan, a miniature Roman Emperor from the warring display next door), the kid in you is free to revel in childish wonder and excitement so completely that when the requisite dorkily happy ending appears in the distance, you probably won't even notice.