Rowan Atkinson’s accident-prone Mr. Bean, created by the actor in association with writers Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll, is, in some parts of the world, a television phenomenon. In Britain, the half-hour, almost silent comedies have emerged as the highest-rated comedy series of the ’90s, grabbing a 60% audience share. The program is screened in 94 countries (it plays on PBS domestically), on 53 airlines and has sold 6.5 million videos, the U.K.’s most successful TV-to-video transfer to date. However, most Americans probably will recognize Atkinson chiefly as the befuddled priest in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” which was scripted by Curtis.
Now “Bean” segues to the bigscreen, aiming squarely at the U.S. market, with mostly satisfactory results. But it remains to be seen if the comic’s couch-potato fans will leave home to see their hero in multiplexes, and whether new audiences can be found for this talented, weirdly eccentric comic. Pic world preems in Australia, prime “Bean” territory, with a big ad campaign (“The Ultimate Disaster Movie”) and an Atkinson tour before being launched by Polygram in other key markets in the months ahead. Big openings are to be expected in Bean-familiar territories, with a major question mark hovering over U.S. acceptance.
Atkinson’s Bean is a Mr. Average who lives alone, dresses conservatively in jacket and tie, and relates better to children than he does to adults. Childlike himself, he encompasses character traits that reach back to such vintage clowns as Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon, though his bodily and facial contortions are more in the Jerry Lewis/Jim Carrey tradition. Though possessed of a child’s innocence, he has an evil streak, and very often deliberately precipitates the catastrophes that follow inevitably in his wake. Clumsy in the extreme, he’s seriously accident-prone.
“Bean” kicks off by establishing the character as he starts a new day, shaving his entire face, including his forehead and tongue. The simple act of making a cup of instant coffee is a challenge for Bean, one he overcomes in typically ridiculous fashion.
Bean works as a kind of caretaker at Britain’s formidable Royal National Gallery, but he seems to spend most of his time snoozing and it’s no surprise that his bosses have decided to fire him, declaring he’s their worst employee. When the chairman of the gallery’s board (a cameo from veteran John Mills) mysteriously intervenes on Bean’s behalf (calling him “a splendid young man”) his employers have to find another way to get rid of him, at least for a while.
Their chance comes with a request from a small Los Angeles art gallery, the Grierson. Owner George Grierson (Harris Yulin) has secured a $50 million donation from Army Gen. Newton (Burt Reynolds) to buy back the U.S.’ greatest painting, “Whistler’s Mother,” from the Musee d’Orsee in Paris; it’s not that Newton appreciates art, he just reckons a Stateside classic shouldn’t be in the hands of foreigners. Grierson seeks the National Gallery’s help in loaning an art scholar (“of great weight and substance”) to officiate at the unveiling of the painting and to make a keynote speech at the ceremony. The National, of course, sends Mr. Bean.
Bean’s misadventures begin on the transatlantic aircraft, and continue at Los Angeles Intl. Airport, where he falls foul of the local cops. Invited to stay at the home of gallery director David Langley (Peter MacNicol), his wife, Alison (Pamela Reed), and their children, precocious teen daughter Jennifer (Tricia Vessey) and hero-worshipping 12-year-old son Kevin (Andrew Lawrence), Bean soon is smashing valuable ornaments and blowing up the Thanksgiving turkey in the microwave. At the gallery, minor social embarrassments escalate until, inevitably, he does untold damage to the painting itself.
Though usually speechless on the small screen, Bean has a few words to say in his feature debut, in addition to his customary grunts and groans. Speaking in a deep guttural voice, he even gets to make the eagerly awaited speech at the unveiling ceremony.
Atkinson, who is in almost every scene, boasts a full-on comic personality that on the cinema screen is a bit daunting at times, and it’s an open question as to whether the Carrey crowd will go for this seriously eccentric Brit. Director Mel Smith, who helmed the ill-fated “Radioland Murders,” marshals the material with a sure hand until near the end when, after the film’s natural climax, he veers off into another direction with an extended sequence in an emergency hospital where Bean is mistaken for a surgeon. Smith evidently likes such scenes, because he staged a key episode of his first feature, “The Tall Guy,” in a similar setting; but many will find Bean’s attempts at surgery more nerve-racking than hilarious.
Atkinson dominates his fellow actors, but Peter MacNicol registers strongly as the discomfited David, Pamela Reed exudes warmth and exasperation as his long-suffering wife, and Yulin is splendid as the pompous gallery boss. Reynolds only appears late in the film and is called upon to do very little.
Pic is brightly packaged, and, as with many Polygram productions, there are several not always appropriate songs augmenting the soundtrack, presumably with an eye to soundtrack sales.