(On Cable TV, November 2015) I’ve never been a big fan of Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder, sure, but not Mr. Bean) and the first film didn’t do much to mollify me. But there’s a strong streak of cleverness underneath the dumb physical humor and Mr. Bean’s Holidays clearly highlights the wit behind the pratfalls. There are, to be sure, pratfalls a plenty as Bean makes his way south, through France in order to attend the Cannes film festival. For what it’s worth, the film does bet better as it goes on: the first half-hour is pure Bean, but the last one gets satiric about cinema itself. Willem Dafoe shows up as an intensely pretentious actor/director, and that leads us to a very funny Cannes preview of an insufferable arthouse films. At another time, Bean shows up at the right time to screw up the shooting of a big WW2-themed commercial. Those gets laughs that aren’t usually the kind associated with the Mr. Bean character. The rest of the film is generally tolerable, with Atkinson’s mugging for the camera being supported by real comedy. Mr. Bean’s Holidays does seem to be a bit better than the first film, which lost itself in trying to package Bean for an American audience –this time, he looks to be more in his element, in a film tailored to the character’s strengths. Much of it starts to grate early, but there are a few gems in the film’s second half –enough to justify seeing the film even if your reaction to Bean is lukewarm at best.
(In French, On TV, September 2015) All movies ask for a bit of indulgence as they take off from reality, and this is truer in slapstick comedy where we’re asked to play along what is obviously ludicrous. Of course, you have to be willing to give in. So it is that a high compliment that I can give to Bean is the way it manages to be funny despite my mild dislike for the character. Rowan Atkinson is an exceptional comedian, but I’d rather re-watch the verbal wittiness of his Blackadder series than to suffer through much of his dim-witted Bean character. The movie certainly doesn’t try to move away from the essence of the character: Bean is still terrifyingly stupid and the world around him seems to adjust itself in consequence. Characters behave in brain-damaged ways, which to say that the comedy here is broad enough to let anything through. Bits of the TV shows are repeated nearly verbatim, further cementing the film’s dedication to its protagonist. And yet, despite my dislike for that kind of stuff, I did find myself chuckling more often than I should, especially in the last third of the film when Bean improbably acquires some idiot-savant skills and manages to pull off a half-clever scheme. SO it is with reluctant admiration that I doff my hat at Bean’s success in making me laugh even when I didn’t want to. One notes, however, that I ended up watching not only the French version of the film, but (due to Ami Télé’s intentional accessibility policy) the Described Audio French version of the film, in which a narrator describes Bean’s on-screen antics in a deadpan fashion. It almost goes without saying that this makes the film quite a bit better, or at least far more pleasant absurd to watch.
(In theaters, October 2011) Given how infrequently I have thought of the original Johnny English since its release in 2003, it’s safe to say that I wasn’t demanding a sequel nor expecting too much of it. Unsurprisingly, this kind of low-expectations brinksmanship actually works in Johnny English Reborn’s favour, as the film is occasionally wittier and funnier than expected. Part of what works is that this time around, English isn’t always a bumbling idiot: In-between the goofs and the pratfalls are flashes of competence and wit. The best in-story example comes during a foot chase, in which a parkour expert is defeated by an exasperated protagonist as he goes around obstacles, opens doors and takes an elevator to catch his opponent. At other times, English’s sidekick isn’t the kind of super-qualified overachiever that other bumbling comedy spies often get saddled with; we also get a car chase parody featuring a tricked-out wheelchair. That’s the kind of James Bond satire anyone could enjoy. Unfortunately, they come sandwiched between moments seemingly designed for kids and other undemanding audiences: Johnny English Reborn goes broad and wide in its mugging for laughs, going from Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadderesque suave goatee to the clean-shaven buffoonery of Mr. Bean far too quickly. The romance is barely sketched, and while former Bond-girl Rosamund Pike is cute enough, I would have enjoyed seeing Natalie Imbruglia again. Still, Atkinson makes limp slapstick fly better than anyone else, and the film isn’t without a few scattered grins. Being better than the original isn’t much, but it’s enough to raise the film into average mediocrity, albeit friendly to older kids. Stay for the credits, though: Johnny English Reborn concludes with an absolutely charming comedy sequence in which Atkinson cooks in-sync with The Halls of the Mountain Kings: It’s the film’s finest moment.