Sunday, June 10, 2007

Night at the Museum

I was visiting with family and friends this weekend. I saw Night at the Museum in a small living room filled with three generations, two languages, piles of food, misbehaving kids, and no beer.
We all watched the whole thing. The two year old watched it. Her grandmother, who speaks no English, watched it. I watched it after spending nearly four hours in a minivan on a crowded California highway with aforementioned kids. If you think about it, this is pretty amazing.
Night at the Museum is a remarkable movie.

Now, by remarkable, I do NOT mean 'good'. By remarkable, I do not mean 'original'. By remarkable I just mean 'effective'. It does exactly what it sets out to do. And it does this through the awesome, awful, awe-inspiring power of the three-act structure. Love it or hate it, it must be reckoned with.

The conceit of the film is simple: a night watchman finds that the museum comes to life each night. It is, plain and simple, a vehicle for a series of comic sketches based around the conceit. There's not a lot of dramatic import unless you find suspense in hoping that the lions will devour Ben Stiller soon. The three-act structure pretty much gives us a reason to sit there, to engage his otherwise not terribly real, believable, or even sympathetic character.

At first I was a little shocked at how long the first act ran. We're treated to this unbelievably textbook protagonist set up. Ben Stiller needs a job or he'll lose the respect of his son, who's gravitating to his mom's jerk of a boyfriend. There's a suitable love interest/history docent conveniently located behind the information desk, but she thinks he's a loser who won't amount to anything, and gee, if only there was a way he could bring history to life for her.

If you're a screenwriter, you're groaning. And for some reason, the first act just won't end. But as soon as the second act gets rolling, you realize why. The audience will be getting NOTHING but Ben Stiller playing fetch with T-Rex, spanking monkeys, and arbitrating fights between dioramas for the next 45 minutes. They WANT the story to be as simple as possible. The simpler it is, the more that question is out of the way. The story here is nothing more than the stakes that hold up the tent. When this is the case, all you have to do is drive them deep into the ground.

I hear lots of people, often very new screenwriters, say that "they could write something better than that". And it's true sometimes. Why does Hollywood hire these morons? Well, because they aren't morons. They realize when a simple, painfully obvious story is the goal. What separates the men from the boys is mostly a matter of how conscious you are of your story elements, and how you exploit them as tools. And in that sense, Night at the Museum is no less remarkable a film than Magnolia, or Midnight Cowboy, or even Shaun of the Dead.

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