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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Bean (1997)



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The British television comedy Mr. Bean was wildly successful in England and in most other parts of the world outside of the United States, even more so than star Rowan Atkinson's other comedy series, Black Adder. So it's not surprising that a feature film was made about the character.

Mr. Bean is one of the closest things to the old silent clowns seen since the silent era ended. He rarely speaks -- when he does, it's a guttural, muffled utterance. His comedy is physical, derived mostly from his innovative solutions to ordinary problems. But he's got a malevolent streak in him, too -- often he'll flaunt some fortune before those less lucky, or he'll play some juvenile prank and snicker. But he's also got his tender side, and in spite of his mischievousness, when he's lonely or hurt, we feel for him. He's a grown up with the mind of a mischievous nine year old kid. That's as good a way to sum Mr. Bean up as any.

The television series was little more than a sequence of skits. Mr. Bean visits a public pool. Mr. Bean meets the Queen. Mr. Bean plays mini golf. Other characters were used solely as backboards for Mr. Bean's unique comedy.

In a feature length film, there was doubt that such a format would work. Right or wrong, it is doubtful another format would work as well, and this film's certainly doesn't. The script actually introduces new characters, the foremost being Peter MacNicol, whose life is victimized by Mr. Bean's antics. MacNicol is good, playing the role of distraught foil to a tee, buckling under the mounting disaster without losing his charisma and audience sympathy. But the business with his family is misplaced and distracting. Who cares about someone else's family troubles? This is a Mr. Bean movie! Other characters are only assets insofar as they permit Atkinson more opportunities to play with his character.

The plot is this. Mr. Bean's job, we learn, is to "sit and look at paintings." He's a caretaker for the Royal National Gallery, but the rest of the staff would like to see him fired. When that option is closed to them, they decide to transfer him to America to participate in the unveiling of "Whistler's Mother," which a Los Angeles art gallery has just purchased from the French. As expected, Mr. Bean makes a seemingly irreversible mess out of the job but miraculously pulls through in the end. Of course, the plot is simply a set up for brief comic skits along the way, and that's as it should be. But the look and feel of the film is vastly different from that of the series, and series fans should be forewarned.

Three or four gags were lifted from the television series, which is a minor disappointment, especially since one is one of my least favorite (the turkey/head gag is funny but out of synch with the rest of Mr. Bean's comedy) and one was done better in the series (the popping-of-the-airsick-bag joke worked better when the end credits mercifully rolled at an opportune moment). But the rest of this movie is gut-wrenchingly hilarious. When Mr. Bean was on screen, I laughed more often than not. Curiously, the film's funniest moment is when Mr. Bean speaks the most -- he has to make a speech after the painting's unveiling. Watching him stumble through that is one of the funniest things I've seen on the screen in a long time, and I laughed long even after leaving the theater.

Yet I do not think this movie is a good introduction to the character. Although the film features most of the Mr. Bean staples of comedy -- loony but innovative solutions to problems, exasperated facial expressions, blatant obliviousness, juvenile pranks, and desperate panicking -- the film as a whole is less fresh and inventine than the average episode of the television series and a hair more crude. So see the television show, which airs on PBS in the United States, and then see the movie. Rowan Atkinson is a comic genius, without a doubt, and whatever flaws this film may have, his hilarious performance and perfect comic timing are not among them.

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