Dumbing down

Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean used to be a hilarious British fop, until he made a movie

Family films are often pitched for "the child in us all," but Bean doesn't have an ounce of "inner child" in it. It's been worked out to appeal to, at best, 8- to 10-year-olds; there's not much to delight even precocious pre-teens, let alone adults.

This really is too bad, since Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean, as showcased in his phenomenally successful short films for British television, is a marvelous comic character almost on par with Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot. Both fastidious and gross, he's like a cross between a fop and an anteater. He may not appeal to the child in us, but he sure appeals to the brat. Bean represents a dismal dumbing-down of a very bright creation. Is nothing sacred?

Atkinson is best known to American audiences as the malaprop-prone minister in Four Weddings and A Funeral, but he was even funnier as the swell-headed comic who uses Jeff Goldblum as his foil in The Tall Guy. His Bean shorts have turned up here on cable TV and PBS, and, if you've flown a major airline in the past six years, you've probably seen a few of them sandwiched between the CNN briefs and the football highlights.

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But somebody decided all this wasn't enough--and so we now are in the midst of a Bean marketing blitz that recalls the ushering into America of Julio Iglesias. This wouldn't be objectionable if at least we were getting the real Bean. Instead we've been fobbed off with a feature-length impostor: a twit nitwit for the kiddies. And to make things worse, the whole production has a patched-together slovenliness--it looks as if it were shot in Murko-Color.

Atkinson originally created Mr. Bean with writer Richard Curtis, who shares a script credit on Bean. Its director, Mel Smith, was also associated with many of the Mr. Bean shorts and directed The Tall Guy. Shouldn't they all know better? I'm tempted to say they've trashed their own franchise, except Bean has already racked up more than $100 million overseas. Either people don't know the difference or they don't care. Many of the routines in Bean--such as Bean getting his head caught in a turkey, or dozing off in his chair--are lifted from sketches in the shorts where the timing and body language were expert. Here the routines are sloggy and inexact. Atkinson must have tired of doing them again.

Even if the routines were better executed, Bean is misconceived in a deeper way. In the shorts, Bean, who almost never speaks, is basically the whole show; the other cast members, if any at all, are silent, straight-faced foils for his antics. And those antics are intimately grounded in British mores.

Perversely, Bean up-ends all these traditions. It cooks up a plot where a somewhat chattery Bean is transplanted to Los Angeles, posing as an art historian, and then surrounds him with a bevy of chattery co-stars (Peter MacNicol, Harris Yulin, Pamela Reed, and many others). These alterations in the Bean formula may make the movie more accessible to 8-year-olds, but where do they leave the rest of us? The filmmakers don't even provide a fresh take on L.A. If you were hoping to see what happens when Bean goes Hollywood, hope again. He's even kind to children in this one, which is a bit like trying to rehabilitate W.C. Fields. If Bean prompts a sequel, I have a way to set things right again. Bring back Pee-Wee Herman and put him together with Bean. These two high-low man-child nutbrain comics might really hit it off. At the very least, they could play house together.

Bean.
Directed by Mel Smith. Written by Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll. Starring Rowan Atkinson, Peter MacNicol, Pamela Reed, and Harris Yulin. Opens Friday.

 
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