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A Subhuman Bean

For those of us living here in the Colonies, British slapstick has always been an acquired taste, and the Mother Country's ever-so-popular TV character "Mr. Bean" takes more acquiring than most. Meanwhile, the producers of Bean, which marks the goggle-eyed buffoon's first appearance on the big screen, have collected more than $125 million at the box office even before the picture's U.S. release. To date, it's done $27 million in the United Kingdom, and it's the highest-grossing movie of all time in fun-loving Serbia.

It will be instructive to see if the Bean count continues at the same breakneck pace on this side of the pond.

In case you haven't caught this particular phenomenon on PBS or Comedy Central or video, here's a sketch. Played by the frantic, monkey-faced English comic Rowan Atkinson, Mr. Bean is a hyperactive child trapped in the body of a grownup--a kind of super-aggressive version of Pee-wee Herman. Rootless, jobless (until now, anyway) and self-absorbed, this bundle of stumbles and nervous tics rarely uses actual words, instead emitting an array of grunts and squawks, soprano whinnies and baritone gurgles. Like Harpo Marx (an obvious inspiration), he's bent on anarchy; like Jim Carrey, his every feature is Silly Putty. Like a fifth-grader in need of therapy, his idea of self-expression is to hand-pop a sick bag onto the head of a fellow airline passenger or to spike a security guard's coffee with half a jar of laxative or to tweak up the power on an amusement-park thrill ride until the patrons are hurled out of their seats. He doesn't understand the classic middle-finger salute, but that doesn't keep him from waving it all over town.

Underneath his energy and innocence, our Mr. Bean is a rather nasty piece of business. Apparently, kids love him. A lot of adults, too. In a world of creeping infantilism, this goofball in a rumpled tweed jacket and red necktie seems to be the unruly child in which a lot of people would take refuge.

Clearly, Bean the movie is meant to further seduce the American audience. Before you can say "Cheerio!" writers Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll zip their man across the Atlantic. The plot excuse: Bean's tormented acquaintances at the London art museum where he works (doing what, we're never sure) can't wait to be rid of this troublesome half-wit, so they dispatch him to Los Angeles in the guise of an art scholar. "Doctor" Bean is to preside over the repatriation of the famous painting "Whistler's Mother," which an American Army general (Burt Reynolds) has just purchased for $50 million and is about to install in a trendy L.A. gallery overseen by Harris Yulin. You can imagine. Before these neo-screwball antics are halfway done, Bean has refashioned Whistler's handiwork, wrecked the home life of the gallery curator (Chicago Hope's Peter MacNicol) and inadvertently deflated the pretensions of art patrons everywhere. No sooner has he landed on American soil than this moron is taken by the locals as an eccentric genius. By the end, the movie asks us to embrace him as a well-meaning fool.

Reluctant as I am to impose primitive Yankee tastes on a thing so fine, it's probably safe to say that its real inspiration lies in the subtler details--such as they are. If your idea of comedy includes a man reeling around a kitchen with his head stuck inside an uncooked turkey, yuk on. Possibly there's more grace in the sight of our Bean offering up his kindergarten notion of hors d'oeuvre: slices of raw onion stuck on toothpicks. Extended diarrhea gags, snoring-in-public jokes and wet-crotch business probably still have their roles to play in contemporary comedy, but Bean's potshots at American hucksterism are more fun. In connection with the "Whistler's Mother" unveiling, the gallery's merchandising man has come up with a skin-mag poster called "Whistler's Sister" and a toy called "Whistler's Whistle."

Let's give Rowan Atkinson due credit. During his long stint as The Black Adder and in the Oscar nominee Four Weddings and a Funeral, he certainly earned his keep. But whatever he's paid to impersonate Bean, the sundry contortions and conniving tricks he performs are likely worth twice as much. If he inspires even half a dozen American kids to set the family home on fire, lock their unfed younger siblings in the basement when Mom's at work or glaze the porch steps with ice just before the mailman arrives, then he shall have been successful in life. Improvisational guerrilla warfare (not art history) is the silent-but-deadly Mr. Bean's strength, and so long as his creators set him loose in the world--we foresee sequels aplenty in our crystal ball--he may as well make himself useful. Even if some of us Yanks don't quite understand what the big rush to the ticket window is all about.

Bean.
Screenplay by Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll. Directed by Mel Smith. With Rowan Atkinson, Peter MacNicol, Pamela Reed and Harris Yulin.

 
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