Big-Screen `Bean' Doomed by Weak Plot

BEAN Directed by Mel Smith Starring Rowan Atkinson

There are dumb movies, and then there are dumb movies. Making slapstick, the lowest form of humor, successful requires enormous skill and talent. Rowan Atkinson's character, Mr. Bean, whose inspired idiocy traces a direct descent from Charlie Chaplin, infuses new intelligence into unintelligent comedy. It's really too bad that such a well-wrought dumb character finds himself in such a stock dumb movie.

The new film Bean is exactly the wrong venue for Atkinson's character. Applying a simple-minded and contrived plot--or indeed applying any kind of plot of import, especially one with morals and attempted emotional baggage--just isn't the kind of load the framework of the character of Bean is supposed to support. It's like having an hour-and-a-half long "Seinfeld" episode about something and expecting viewers to care sincerely about the daily pitfalls of the characters--pitfalls which are so endearing because they are everyday and unimportant. Bean takes Atkinson's comic mastery and confines it in a standard, sappy, Hollywood package, one with family values, emotional growth and other such sickening artifices. The film raises the appealing dumbness of Mr. Bean to an unwelcome and unintentional plateau of movie-dumbness with swirling layers of metadumbness that make for a confused and disappointing showing so dumb it smarts.

The movie is an offshoot of the most popular British TV comedy series of the 90s, "Mr. Bean." That show displayed the misadventures of a character who can be described as a combination of Charlie Chaplin and Woody Woodpecker. Indeed, there is a definite cartoonish quality to the silly, frivolous and mischievous schtick Atkinson perpetrates. Also cartoon-like is the inconsequential, episodic action; the audience can sit back and enjoy the mashugina machinations without bothering to worry about property damage or hurt feelings. There is a universally appealing joy in watching Atkinson interact, child-like, with the world around him and doing most of it destructively. Attaching import to his actions ruins it.

Atkinson has muscles in his face most people aren't aware of. Every tweak, every twitch is expertly crafted with supremely labile comic expressiveness; he could conduct a symphony with his eyebrows. Watching that face react to preposterously inextricable situations that the rest of his body has created is a delight. Atkinson moves with an awkwardness that can only be described as graceful--an uncoordinated elan, a lithe clutziness. These qualities still exist in the movie, fortunately, but they have been dumbed down. There is more bathroom humor than there ever was in the TV show, and Bean must share the screen with the far less inspired antics of many more characters than he would interact with before. Despite these obstacles, there are definitely some quality moments of vintage Bean schtick, and the comic genius of Atkinson does manage to shine through the otherwise ubiquitous mush.

The basic premise of the movie relies on Mr. Bean having a job and the concomitant responsibilities--things he never had to deal with before. He is a ne'er-do-well employee of London's National Art Gallery whose job security is insured by having endeared himself to the Chair of the Board. In order to get rid of Bean, the other board members vote to send him to America, passing him off as the art expert who will accompany the masterpiece "Whistler's Mother" to a museum in Los Angeles which has just purchased it. The curator and art historian of the museum (Peter MacNicol) inexplicably offers to put Bean up for his stay in town, affording Bean the opportunity to wreck not only the painting and the official unveiling (for which he is supposed to give a speech), but also his poor host's house and home.

Of course, having a clearly defined plot which plods from point A to point B, also something Mr. Bean didn't have to deal with in the TV show, tones down a lot of Atkinson's lunacy by making it all very predictable. The movie elicits a constant and varied selection of groans and muffled supplications from the audience as they realize the ridiculousness bearing down on Bean three or four steps ahead of the actual on-screen action.

Making Bean's unwitting victims actual characters--as opposed to leaving them unwitting and unexplored as per the show--also turns out to be a mistake. The movie makes viewers obliged to feel sorry for them, a surefire way to kill the fun. Bean's curator host is incredibly whiny and annoying, and quite undeserving of all the screen time he soaks up. MacNicol, whom one wants to strangle, is straight out of the generic fretting and put-upon straightman mold, and his presence truly cheapens Atkinson's admirable efforts.

The form and style of Bean are remarkably generic and trite. However, Atkinson's antics, though truncated, make it barely watchable. When he is by himself and allowed to perform up to his usual levels, the audience can almost forgive the staleness of his vehicle. Scenes including those wherein he monkeys in front of mirrors, goes on secret undercover missions of silliness and gets himself arrested in an airport simply for being Beanish are the film's only redeeming moments. Unfortunately, the contrived sappiness of the plot takes what should have been divinely inspired idiocy and makes it merely dumb.