Charles Taylor reviews 'Bean' directed by Mel Smith and starring Rowan Atkinson.

Published November 7, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

IF YOU CAME upon Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean on display in a zoo, you wouldn't feel secure enough to pet him, but you might spend hours staring into his cage and wondering just what it is you were seeing. His gawky gait, alternately stiff-legged and noodle-spined, propels him along like some goony bird that can't help calling attention to itself. Like a frog's, his eyes are capable of bulging out or staring groggily from beneath heavy lids. His tongue seems to be some slimy, lolling, unidentifiable mass that's adopted the rest of his body as a host. And the strangulated noises that occasionally escape his lips sound like a man with a chest cold attempting to imitate Grover from "Sesame Street."

It's typical of Rowan Atkinson's talent for malevolent silliness that his contribution to the comic history of clowns who are poor, solitary put-upon souls is one that takes the pathos evoked by Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp -- the most famous of those characters -- and turns it against us. The world isn't against Mr. Bean; he scarcely notices that the world exists. Rules, objects, other people exist solely as objects of his curiosity, covetousness, scorn and nose-thumbing. That's why he's an almost silent character. With the exception of when he needs someone to show off too, he has no desire to communicate with anyone. This is a character who operates totally without a mental stop sign; no impulse is too potentially dangerous or embarrassing or destructive to be resisted. Of the episodes I've watched of the "Mr. Bean" TV series, my favorite moment must be when he turns up at a resort hotel for his vacation and, checked into his room, unpacks hammer and electric drill and begins hanging his favorite pictures on the wall. The job finished, he regards his redecorated lodgings with undisguised self-satisfied relish.

Mr. Bean has provided Atkinson with his greatest success, though this character is only a narrow and perverse slice of what he's capable of. His breathtaking talent for comic nastiness really bloomed in the "Black Adder" series and when he played a smug comedy star abusing his stooge Jeff Goldblum in "The Tall Guy" (which, like the new "Bean," was directed by Mel Smith). At other moments, Atkinson has shown a light-headed haplessness that's made him almost endearing. I smile whenever I think of the embarrassed whinny that escapes Atkinson's priest in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" when Kristin Scott-Thomas makes a remark about "con-doms." And I treasure Atkinson in the James Bond film "Never Say Never Again," where he plays Nigel Smallfaucet, an espionage-smitten twit of a British diplomat in the Bahamas.

It's not hard to see the appeal of Mr. Bean. There's something very gratifying about a character who reminds you how it felt to be a kid in the school cafeteria taunting your classmates because you have more cookies than they do. It's not adult or respectable or restrained or generous, but when you feel like laughing it can be a real relief.

The best moments of "Bean," which was penned by Atkinson's longtime writing partner, Richard Curtis, and Robin Driscoll, are that satisfyingly silly. When Mr. Bean boards a plane and discovers he's holding a first-class ticket, his impulse is to turn to the poor saps trying to squeeze themselves and their carry-on bags into coach and wave his ticket, making a "nyeah, nyeah, nyeah" face. A little later, he offers M&Ms to a little boy fighting off airsickness, probably relieved that the kid's refusal means there's more for him. There's a classic moment in which Mr. Bean rewires an amusement park attraction to his own satisfaction and rides it with a blissed-out expression while, all around him, terrified patrons are thrown from the ride. Some of the funniest bits are nothing more than Atkinson staring into the camera and pulling one face after the other. It's the oldest way in the world to get a laugh, and Atkinson can get you giggling uncontrollably.

Stretching it, I'd say that these high points account for about 10 of the 89 minutes that make up "Bean." Perhaps the filmmakers feared that audiences would get restless if the movie adopted the stripped-down silence of the television series, or that the character would seem too foreign to American movie audiences. Whatever the reason, "Bean" saddles Atkinson with a story that hangs on him like a dead weight and a filmmaking style that surrounds him like dead air. The plot has Mr. Bean's colleagues at the National Gallery sending him to a Los Angeles art gallery that has acquired the painting commonly known as "Whistler's Mother." The gallery has requested a British art expert for their unveiling, and Bean's co-workers see this as the perfect way to get rid of him.

If Curtis and Driscoll had merely typed the words "Disaster ensues" and then Smith had left Atkinson to his own devices, the picture might have struck gold. But it keeps returning him to that damned plot and the career and family complications of the American art expert (Peter MacNicol) Mr. Bean stays with. And transferring television comedy to the movies is always a risk since characters perfectly scaled to TV can look lost on the big screen. (That's what happened with the "Beavis and Butt-head" movie.)

The problem with "Bean" is less inflation than an utter paucity of imagination. The filmmakers come up with notions for set pieces (like Bean loose in an amusement park) and then give Atkinson no time to develop them. They surround him with a cast that includes one wonderful actress (Pamela Reed), one overexposed ham (Harris Yulin) and one what-am-I-doing-here "guest star" (Burt Reynolds), with not a decent second banana in the bunch. They top it all off with some treacly messages about the importance of family and being accepted. Everything about "Bean" gives the impression that it was done fast and on the cheap. Visually, the movie is an affront, the early scenes in England too dark-toned for comedy and the Los Angeles scenes too bright and washed out. (We're asked to believe that an art expert would live in a house as bland and undistinguished as a sitcom set.)

Finally, when you come right down to it, the idea of putting Mr. Bean in a fish-out-of-water story doesn't make much sense since he's always in his own little universe. It's too bad the makers of "Bean" didn't have enough faith in their star to allow him the freedom he's found splashing happily around his character's fishbowl.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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