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Going for the jocular

The Washington Mall glistened in the romantic glow of hundreds of old-fashioned street lanterns on a cool May evening. The unusually serene ambience was courtesy of “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” which filmed a few days of exteriors in the nation’s capital last year before moving on to shoot in Vancouver.

The sequel moves out of New York’s Museum of Natural History, the setting for the 2006 Ben Stiller blockbuster about a hapless night watchman who discovers that the exhibits come to life after dark. The Smithsonian Institution’s 19 facilities allow for exponentially more museum mayhem.

In “Smithsonian,” which opens May 22, Stiller’s Larry Daley has become a successful gadget entrepreneur who’s lost his joie de vivre -- until he gets pulled into another round of action with a Who’s Who of historic villains, the Lincoln Memorial, the National Air and Space Museum and a romance with Amelia Earhart.

“Obviously she’s a wax figure, not that it stops most people,” Stiller joked on set. “We don’t want to get too much into the psychodrama of that. It will scare off the children.”

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Earhart is, in fact, a wax figure brought to life in the form of Amy Adams through the magic of an ancient Egyptian tablet.

How pleased is Stiller to have a real, live actress to play against? For the first movie, he was perennially playing in green-screen mode, pretending to be chased by T-rex bones, interacting with the Easter Island head Dum Dum Gum Gum, and acting opposite a couple of toothpicks used to represent the miniaturized Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan characters, all to be inserted later.

“There is someone to go through an experience with,” enthused Stiller, who seemed enchanted by Adams’ high-octane “energy and can-do attitude.”

On this night, a cloud of wound-up energy trailed Stiller. In his Smithsonian guard uniform (stolen, according to the plot), the actor lurked around -- all business.

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Like many comics, Stiller evinces “underwhelming funniness in real life,” said returning director Shawn Levy. “What I’ve found -- and I’m sure there are stars who violate this rule -- the people who make it really big time take it very seriously and work insanely hard. The frivolity we all love on screen is not true in real life. Ben is diligent and committed but not frivolous.” Or, Levy cracked, “I know I never have to worry because Ben is doing the worrying for me.”

Adams, in contrast, is more like a fantasy version of the famed aviator, wise-cracking and jaunty, a pint-sized Katharine Hepburn in jodhpurs and a leather jacket.

“She has this great unnerving way of staring at Ben until he’s uncomfortable, and Ben Stiller is really funny when he’s made uncomfortable, whether by Robert De Niro or a monkey,” Levy said. “Amy’s figured out if you stare at him in a vaguely judgmental way, he starts to squirm and get funnier.”

In the scene being shot this night, Adams and Stiller are trying to break into the National Air and Space Museum but their path is unexpectedly blocked by Ivan the Terrible’s henchmen. The heroes are hiding behind what seems to be a bus shelter.

“We’ve been jimmy-jacked,” Adams said with exuberance.

“Jimmy-jacked?” said Stiller, his character stunned by the odd colloquialism.

“It’s the way I speak,” she sputtered.

“Yeah, but it sounds made up, even for you.”

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For a micro-scene that occupies maybe a half-page of dialogue, there were two setups and many, many takes, as Adams pirouetted through the scene, tossing off variations of line readings: sincere, mocking, sarcastically robotic, and what apparently ended up in the movie -- “lax deadpan reading with a hint of Valley,” Levy joked.

Stiller’s trajectory was more subtle -- as the takes progressed (all accompanied by Levy’s high-energy encouragement) he slowly warmed from a slightly shut-down disbeliever to a bemused but ultimately game dance partner. Stiller ad-libbed, tinkering to find the perfect comedic zone.

Levy noted it’s not accidental that so many of “Night at the Museum’s” players are either writers or master improvisers: Stiller, Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais. . . . “We will revise the scenes every day until we wrap,” Levy said. But there has to be an initial script. “Ben believes he can’t improvise well until the scene is good, otherwise there’s too much pressure and everyone is tight.”

Still, nothing trumps on-set spontaneity -- even the special effects shots that take months to execute. “We get to the day, and we’re looking at the scene and Ben might go, ‘It will be funnier if I do it this way’ -- I turn and see a half-dozen laptop-bound visual effects technicians go white because they know all our preparation, all the prep and pre-visualization has just become irrelevant.

“But this is a comedy,” Levy said jovially. “Everything has to be slavish to the laugh, not the spectacle.”

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rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

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Also

When family

togetherness gets to be too much this summer, head to the movies for these releases.

‘Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs’: Sid the sloth, Manny the mammoth and Diego the saber-toothed tiger deal with rampaging dinosaurs, while Scrat the ... well, whatever Scrat is, finds romance. July 3.

‘Aliens in the Attic’: Vacationing kids must battle invading aliens who have taken over their attic. How busy must those parents be? July 31.

‘Ponyo’: Japanese animated film has a boy befriending a goldfish princess who longs to become human. Aug. 14.

‘Imagine That’: Eddie Murphy as a financial exec who turns to his daughter’s (Bobb’e J. Thompson) imaginary world for answers when his career begins faltering. We hope he finds what he needs. June 12.

‘G-Force’: Guinea pig commandos work with the government to fight bad guys. July 24.

‘Shorts’: Kids and their dysfunctional families find a mysterious object that sets off a series of adventures. Aug. 7.

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SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES

‘Wax on, wax off.’

“The Karate Kid,” June 22, 1984


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