‘Bean’ sprouts deja vu, slapstick

About halfway into “Mr. Bean’s Holiday,” Rowan Atkinson’s eponymous British bumbler awakes in a picturesque French village after trudging through the countryside all night. A credulous grin spreads across that elastic face as Mr. Bean gazes warmly at the children playing in the street, the old men sitting serenely outside the café and the beautiful young waitress who is serving them. Then, suddenly, the din of explosions and gunfire erupt as a German Panzer comes rolling into the square with a troop of Nazi soldiers: Bean panics. Only moments later he realizes he’s actually stumbled onto the set of a World War II movie.

Intentionally or not, the scene deftly cuts to the essence of this latest installment in the Mr. Bean franchise. Watching the putty-limbed Atkinson grimace and gambol his way through an hour and a half of farcical shtick (with virtually no lines, Bean really has no option except physical comedy), moviegoers themselves might feel as if they’ve landed in the distant past. This, after all, is 2007, the Year of Apatow. Slapstick gags like Atkinson’s — trip and fall here, dress in drag there — feel weirdly antiquated, more reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin or Benny Hill than of anything being served up here in postmodernity. And the plot, merely a series of humorous mishaps as Mr. Bean journeys from Paris to Cannes, is prosaic to the point of being quaint.

But if Mr. Bean’s return to theaters seems like a bizarre fantasy of bygone days, it’s a fantasy that most audiences should be happy to indulge. For one thing, strictly as an acolyte of old-school clowning, Atkinson is remarkably good at what he does. Thanks to Bean’s capacious arsenal of facial expressions and bodily contortions, scenarios that should feel old and stale are actually quite hilarious: one of the movie’s most priceless scenes features a befuddled Bean working his way through a fresh seafood platter at an upscale French restaurant. The idea sounds terribly overworked, of course, but Atkinson’s rubbery face wobbles through such a range of exotic expressions that the result is improbably funny.

And “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” is structured so conservatively that its simplicity actually represents a strength rather than a weakness. The film doesn’t dwell on subplots or pursue unnecessary connections; disaster begets disaster, leaving Bean in fixes that grow progressively more ridiculous and more frustrating. When Bean ropes a stranger into filming him on his personal camcorder (the one possession he actually retains throughout the movie), the stranger winds up missing his train, leaving Bean in charge of the man’s young son. Bean is left with the task of bringing the son to Cannes to reunite the two, and from there the plot proceeds lazily toward resolution — things worsen, things get better, and all the while Bean is swept from one picaresque adventure into the next.

Happily, those adventures manage to exploit the minor (and not-so minor) streaks of absurdity that run through modern life. Surely nobody will be mistaking “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” for “Bonfire of the Vanities” anytime soon, but the film at least knows the modus operandi of the contemporary world in which it’s set, even if the physical comedy smacks of an earlier era. Bean’s obsession with filming every moment of his vacation on his camcorder is a well-placed pot shot at our electronic neuroses, while Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of a self-absorbed American filmmaker at Cannes is an appropriate dig at a growing culture of narcissism.

What’s most refreshing about “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” is the conspicuous absence of any kind of cynicism or irony — conspicuous mostly because they seem to be standard in so many areas of pop culture. Even when Judd Apatow’s movies make room for sentimentality, that sentimentality feels perilously close to satire. Mr. Bean’s antics may have all the profundity of a kiddie pool, but his friendship with the young boy, which actually grows and evolves throughout the plot, is completely sincere. The boy’s reunion with his father at the end of the movie is accompanied by no subtle winks of the eye, no uneasy suspicion that what’s on screen is ersatz emotion substituted for the genuine article. At least in this regard, “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” fits a description that could never be applied to its protagonist: a thing of grace.

Not that moviegoers shouldn’t expect a moment when Bean sticks an entire langoustine in his mouth, shell included. Or the other 89 minutes of brainless slapstick. It’s just nice to know that somewhere in that goofy crash-dummy body of his, there’s at least a tidbit that’s human.

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