Friday, August 24, 2007
One of Mr. Bean's unlikely fans is Hong Kong action superstar Chow Yun Fat. When I interviewed Chow, he noted with some envy, how funny Mr. Bean is: "He kills me. No dialogue at all, just the body movement. Its very funny."
Hitting the road in Mr. Bean's Holiday (Universal)
For his latest adventure, Mr. Bean takes a vacation. The title of his new film, Mr. Bean's Holiday calls to mind the classic French comedy of Jacques Tati, Mr. Hulot's Holiday . Atkinson's Mr. Bean is a direct descendant of Tati's Mr. Hulot. Both characters are essentially silent clowns in the tradition of Buster Keaton and Harpo Marx. They have engaged audiences around the globe with physical rather than verbal comedy, and with their generally good-natured and childlike sense of humor.
As Mr. Bean's Holiday opens, we find Bean in enjoying the summer in rainy old England. But luck smiles on him as he wins a trip to Cannes and a video camera in a church raffle. But being Bean, things don't go smoothly. While trying to get someone to videotape his entrance onto the train, Bean causes a father and son to be separated. Then as Bean tries to look after the young boy, he ends up losing his luggage, his passport and all his money. This prompts a few unscheduled side trips including a visit to the set of pretentious American director Carson Clay (an unlikely but funny Willem Dafoe). All along the way, and no matter what disaster strikes, Bean dutifully videotapes everything so that he can remember his very special holiday to the sunny beach of Cannes.
Atkinson has played roles in films such as Never Say Never Again, Love Actually and Keeping Mum where he's been used well. But the previous films based on his characters-- Bean and Johnny English --have not achieved the comic heights of his British TV shows. Mr. Bean's Holiday, however, manages to find that mix of simplicity and absurdity that made the Bean TV shows so good. Director Steve Bendelack (who worked on the wickedly funny Brit-com The League of Gentlemen ) turns this film into Atkinson's best feature. It's not a great film but it showcases Atkinson's Bean in his best light as a naive klutz wreaking innocent havoc wherever he goes and somehow always managing to come out okay.
Watching Atkinson pantomime an opera aria or engage in simple sight gags serves as a reminder of how few people are keeping this kind of visual comedy alive. Before sound, comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy all had to rely on visual comedy to make people laugh. But the tradition of silent clowns continued in the sound era with Harpo Marx and then later on television with the likes of Sid Caesar, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, and Dick Van Dyke who incorporated wordless routines into their shows. But today, Atkinson stands almost alone. The only people I can think of who have carried on this tradition are Hong Kong's Jackie Chan and Steven Chow, who often dazzle us with their physical wit, grace and wacky dexterity.
Willem Dafoe's full of himself as Carson Clay in Mr. Bean's Holiday (Universal)
In Mr. Bean's Holiday, Atkinson recycles some gags from his TV shows (mostly gags involving eating and making funny faces) but also finds new ones to surprise us with (one involving a little shack he gets locked into is particularly good). Atkinson also has fun mocking some of the traditions of the summer blockbusters. Intense chase scenes get sent up in a sequence where the motor bike Bean steals proves to be slower than the walking, which means that the owner simply walks up to Bean on the sputtering stolen bike to reclaim it. The film also takes swipes at pretentious cinema with its depiction of Carson Clay's self-indulgent art film that premieres at Cannes.
Mr. Bean's Holiday (rated G for brief, mild language) provides a delightful family outing. Unlike the generally mean-spirited comedy of Saturday Night Live , which is generally at someone's expense, Mr. Bean's comedy is refreshing in its good naturedness. Plus Atkinson is so good at just being silly. Mr. Bean's Holiday offers the perfect vacation from the real world.
Companion viewing: The Best Bits of Mr. Bean , Not the 9 O'Clock News (Caution: clip contains offensive language), The Black Adder (BBC TV) , The Thin Blue Line (BBC TV) , Mr. Hulot's Holiday , Kung Fu Hustle