Friday November 7, 1997
Have you met Mr. Bean? Quiet fellow, almost mute, very British in his tweedy appearance, but chronically discombobulated in his manner. He's a man who will get his shirt caught in his zipper just before he's to meet a member of the Royal Family, or sneeze up something disgusting during church service and spend the rest of the sermon trying to dispose of it.
If you've met him, through airings of his BBC show on PBS, you haven't forgotten him. And if you haven't, you can do so beginning today at a theater near you. Mr. Bean, a live-action cartoon figure created by British comedian Rowan Atkinson, has graduated to the big screen in the international hit simply titled "Bean."
Atkinson is one of the freshest visual comedians to come along since . . . well, we have to go all the way back to Jim Carrey. There are few direct comparisons to the styles of the two men--Carrey pumps his comic wings to the beat of the hummingbird, while Atkinson moves more to the rhythm of the stork. But they both excel in a field of physical comedy that was on the verge of artistic extinction.
Atkinson, whom you may remember as the tongue-tied priest in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," was inspired by Stan Laurel, and the inspiration shows in the predicaments Bean gets himself into. One simple mistake, one rip in a pair of pants, one carelessly tossed match, one mistaken identity, and Laurel was up to his crying eyes in trouble. And so it goes for Mr. Bean.
In the movie, which has earned a whopping $120 million in international ticket sales, Atkinson's accident-prone character is cast as a tenured security guard at a London gallery, where his unique incompetence so distresses management they give him the task of accompanying a famous painting to America, just to be rid of him for a while.
The Los Angeles gallery that has paid $50 million for the painting, "Whistler's Mother," is expecting a top art expert to introduce it at a handing-over ceremony, and the fact that Bean doesn't know beans about art is the lone notion fueling the entire movie. In vaudeville, where Atkinson's brand of pantomime took root in America, this would be called the set-up, from which all comic digressions spring. And that's what "Bean" is, a feature-length series of mostly silent visual sketches, built around its fish-out-of-water theme.
At the elegant new Grierson Gallery in Los Angeles, Bean is at first taken for an eccentric genius, much like Peter Sellers' Chauncey Gardiner in "Being There." His hosts, the supercilious gallery director (Harris Yulin) and the curator (Peter MacNicol) whose home he is invited to stay in, call him "Doctor" Bean and assume profound knowledge behind a face that suggests a child still learning his ABCs.
That the audience knows Bean's limitations and bumbling nature is the essential ingredient of Atkinson's performance. On the TV show, Bean is a sneaking disaster, trying to cover up some embarrassment while compounding it, all at the inconvenience or expense of hapless bystanders.
In the film, written by Atkinson's longtime collaborators Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll and directed by Mel Smith ("The Tall Guy"), care is taken to develop some of Bean's comic foils. Notably, the flummoxed curator, his no-nonsense wife (Pamela Reed) and their two children, who feel a sort of age-appropriate kinship to their house guest.
While all this adds a hint of realism missing from the TV skits, it also creates a challenge that Atkinson doesn't always overcome and that will almost certainly--you are warned--leave newcomers to Bean's humor wondering what's the big deal. The idea of Bean fitting into this situation, even disastrously, requires more than suspension of disbelief. It requires a full blackout of reasoning.
But for the converted, and for people with a low threshold for visual comedy, "Bean" amounts to a hill of laughs.
Bean, 1997. PG-13, for moments of risque humor. A Working Title production, released by Gramercy Films. Director Mel Smith. Producers Peter Bennett-Jones, Eric Fellner, Tim Evans. Screenplay by Richard Curtis, Robin Driscoll. Cinematographer Francis Kenny. Editor Christopher Blunden. Costumes Hope Hanafin. Music Ronnie Yeskel. Production design Peter Larkin. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean. Peter MacNicol as David Langley. Pamela Reed as Alison Langley. Harris Yulin as George Grierson. Tricia Vessey as Jennifer Langley. Andrew Lawrence as Kevin Langley.