‘Secret of the Tomb’: A comedy beset by sadness

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As if yet another sequel was necessary, “Secret of the Tomb,” is the third film in the “Night at the Museum” series.

Once again, we have Ben Stiller as Larry Daley, a museum guard in New York’s Museum of Natural History. The film’s recycled premise is that the wax characters at the museum can come to life at night. Was this even funny enough to sustain the original 2006 installment in the comedy franchise? That is doubtful. However, even if it once was, those days are long gone.

This time around, there is some nonsense about the Tablet of Ahkmenrah, which was plundered from an Egyptian archaeological site decades before. Now it is inexplicably corroding. During a red carpet fundraising gala at the museum, its deterioration somehow causes total chaos to ensue at the event. As a consequence of this fiasco, Larry’s disgraced boss, Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais), is fired.

Larry, who bear in mind is a security guard, not a learned scholar, decides that he should be the one to resolve the matter of the malfunctioning tablet. He discovers that Cecil Fredericks (Dick Van Dyke), a retired museum guard, was part of the expedition that removed the Tablet of Ahkmenrah from Egypt. Larry tracks Cecil down and discovers that he is living in a home for seniors along with two other erstwhile guards, Gus (Mickey Rooney) and Reginald (Bill Cobbs). In case you’ve forgotten, in the first episode, Larry foiled the scheme of those guards to steal the tablet. Since Cecil disclaims any knowledge about the tablet, this entire reunion scene is gratuitous.

Eventually, Larry has a brainstorm. He will venture to the British Museum in London with Ahkmenrak (Rami Malek), an ancient Egyptian character. They will consult Ahkmenrak’s father, the Pharaoh Merenkahre (Ben Kingsley, who in successive films has gone from a lowly Hebrew slave in pre- Ptolemaic Egypt in “Exodus” to a monarch of that epoch in this film). Since Merenkahre created the tablet, presumably he will know how to restore it.

Of course, Larry’s teen-aged son (Skyler Gisondo) and many of the museum’s come to life figures also come along. This includes an extensive cast of characters.

A new character,  Laa (also portrayed by Stiller), is an animal pelt-wearing Neanderthal, who grunts unintelligibly. It is supposed to be hilarious that Laa closely resembles Larry and misconstrues that the security guard is his biological father.

Robin Williams reprises his role as Colonel Teddy Roosevelt, during his pre-Presidential days as the commander of the Rough Riders during the Spanish American War. Owen Williams as the American cowboy, Jedediah, and Steve Coogan as the Roman centurion, Octavius , are seemingly intent on proving who is a more insufferable screen presence.

Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens, once a cast member of the prestigious “Downton Abbey,” now slumming it in this dreck); Sacagawea (Mizu Peck), the Indian maiden who helped guide the Lewis and Clark expedition; and Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), also join the expedition. And what adventure is complete without a Capuchin monkey to periodically urinate on other cast members?

The screenwriters seem to be unaware that Sir Lancelot is an apocryphal literary figure, not a historical personage. Moreover, they have Attila the Hun with Genghis Khan, another brutal tyrant. Attila is portrayed by an actor, who is half Chinese and wears an Asian outfit. However, he actually hailed from the Transdanubia section of Hungary. Attila was the scourge of the Roman empire in the 5th century. By contrast, Genghis wasn’t born until the 12th century, 700 years later. He founded the Mongolian empire and brutally conquered the peoples of China. It’s ironic since the series’ screenwriters had poked fun at how historically ignorant Americans are.

At the museum, the gang meets another new character, Rebel Wilson as a corpulent British Museum security guard, who bemoans her barren love life.

This putative comedy has the sum total of one funny scene. In it, Sir Lancelot interrupts a play, which is set in Arthurian times by wandering onto stage. Consumed with jealousy, he challenges the actor, who is portraying him and wooing the character of Queen Guinevere. The somewhat obtuse museum version of Sir Lancelot seems unable to divine that it is a theatrical presentation, not reality. The estimable Hugh Jackson is cast as an actor, who is playing Sir Lancelot in a play. The actor’s increasingly desperate efforts to convince his namesake to get off the stage are quite amusing. In the process, Jackson proves a good sport, doing a send-up of his Wolverine character.

“Secret of the Tomb” is a pathetic attempt to milk yet another film out of a tired premise. This final episode would be of nugatory consequence if it weren’t for some sobering contextual aspects of its star-studded cast.

Sir Ben Kingsley is a universally acclaimed actor. His first screen appearance was in the lead role of “Gandhi.” The film dominated the 1982 Academy Awards, winning eight gold statuettes. This included Best Film, Best Director for Richard Attenborough, and Kingsley himself for Best Actor. Back then, did he contemplate that one day he would be relegated to playing a bit part in an execrable film during which he is overshadowed by a micturating simian?

After a show business career that spanned over eighty years and included more than 300 films, this is Mickey Rooney’s penultimate performance on screen. Rooney was remarkably versatile. In addition to being a talented actor, he could sing and dance. Not only that, he was a pianist with the Tommy Dorsey Band and also played drums, banjo, and cello.  Sir Laurence Olivier is often cited as the definitive example of a great thespian. However, who did he regard as the best? He described Rooney as, “the greatest actor of them all.” In 1939, who was the leading box office attraction? It wasn’t Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, or Cary Grant. No – it was the ever ebullient Rooney. At his peak, did the one-time star anticipate that his career would plummet and he would end up in an unheralded role in a schlocky film like this one? Rooney died earlier this year at the ripe old age of 93.

Still going strong at 89, Dick Van Dyke also enjoyed a lengthy and prolific career. He starred in the classic ’60s television sit com, “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and later in the more serious “Diagnosis Murder.” Van Dyke also played key roles in such well-remembered films as “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Mary Poppins,” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”  He is an inductee in the Television Hall of Fame. He also won the SAG Life Achievement Award, the organization’s highest accolade. Yet here Van Dyke is also playing an altogether inconsequential role in a single scene.

And then there is Robin Williams. Although he contributed his voice to the still unreleased “Absolutely Anything,” this film is Williams’ final screen appearance. William’s self-revelatory, improvisational style as a stand-up inspired many other comics to become more open and spontaneous in their monologues. Williams was best known as the star of television’s “Mork and Mindy,” and other comedic characters. However, it was in a serious dramatic role as a psychologist in the drama, “Good Will Hunting,” that he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In his truncated career, Williams also garnered two Emmy Awards, six Golden Gloves, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and five Grammys. Throughout his adult life, he struggled with alcoholism and depression. In August, Williams took his life, putting a premature end to his still thriving career.

Considering the presence of Kingsley, Van Dyke, Rooney, and Williams in the cast, some may be inclined to see “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.” However, admirers of these talented quartet performers would be well served to avoid seeing this legacy-tainting vehicle.

** PG (for mild action, some rude humor, and brief language) 97 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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