Bean (1997)

D: Mel Smith
S: Rowan Atkinson, Peter MacNicol

There is something discomforting about watching this feature-length, big-screen outing for Richard Curtis, Robin Driscol and Rowan Atkinson's TV character. It's not that the film isn't funny (it has its moments), or that it's overextended (the script does a pretty good job of working around the obvious pitfalls involved in keeping a character on screen for an hour and a half which was created for a television half hour), or even that it's very American in tone (Mr. Bean has a good audience in the U.S., but he's not The Simpsons, so there is a certain amount of caution taken with the character). It may be something to do with the scale (which is a factor related to but synonymous with the previous ones), and the fact that this almost non-verbal, small character has been placed in a very verbal, large world (from a silent British museum to big and loud California). But certainly you may come away from the film feeling not quite as amused as you hoped you might be, or if you're unfamiliar with the character, wondering just why it was made in the first place.

Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson), a strange, child-like man, (introduced to us asleep in a chair), is dispatched to California by the board of directors of the British Art Musuem where he works (who hate him, rather inexplicably at this point), to supervise the delivery of a famous painting. He is entrusted to the care of MacNicol, who believes him to be a great academic, not realising that he's just an errand boy with no comprehension of the larger political and intellectual world around him. In the course of the film he is mistaken for a variety of different things, including a terrorist, and manages to destroy both the painting and MacNicol's life, but through a series of misadventures he finally comes up trumps by stating the obvious and being himself.

It is tempting to approach this film as a variant on the idiot savant idea used in Being There and Rain Man. There is another angle which compares Atkinson to the great comic figures of film history such as Chaplin or Keaton and discusses the ironic outsider. There is yet another which links the film to the recent spate of 'dumb' movies in the U.S., including Forrest Gump and Dumb and Dumber and simply tosses it in the pile. Each of these approaches bears its own rewards, but none are wholly satisfactory. There are elements of each in there, and the very fact that the film was made at all is because someone was able to pitch it in these terms, probably using some of these titles as reference. But Bean is finally a shaggy dog story of a movie, amiable enough, maybe even funny, but ultimately futile. It does not stand up to close analysis and it's just not funny enough to really excuse it.

Mr. Bean works on television within the context set by his creators, and his inventive, greedy, small-mindedness perfectly suits the little adventures which are dreampt up for him, usually revolving around the foibles of British life (and the comedy of embarassment). Taken out of this context, Mr. Bean has nowhere to go and nothing to do. His haplessness is unsurprising because the world in which he is placed is so unfamiliar to him. Whatever shortcuts or twists on the everyday he could execute on the world of the TV show are useless in the face of a plot that's bigger than himself and the real-world responsibilities which are thrust upon him. He is also robbed of much of his meanness, as much a source of comedy as his silliness on TV, giving the character less ammunition with which to take on this world. Finally you have to wonder just why anything on screen is happening at all, which is not helpful in the final reel, where the plot spiralls off into an aside involving MacNicol's teenage daughter as an excuse to wrap up the emotional threads and provide further excuses for mistaken identity as Mr. Bean is taken for a surgeon.

It's not so much a bad movie as not a movie at all, and one gets the feeling that seeing it on video will make no appreciable difference to the experience. This is a pity, because there is great pleasure to be had from watching Mr. Bean in action, and there are occasional moments in the movie which make you chuckle. But the re-play of the gag highlights over the closing credits seems strikingly unnecessary, as if the film makers are eager to remind you that Bean is full of funny bits, just in case you forgot them. It merely adds to the discomfort you feel, and makes you want to get out of the theatre quickly and get some fresh air to relieve the disorientation.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.