Clowning around is all in good fun
You'll know how you feel about the new Mr. Bean movie, "Mr. Bean's Holiday," within 20 minutes, when our hero is throwing his sixth or seventh monkey face into the
Maybe we're in the minority, but count me and the giddy 10-year-old one seat over definitely in the former camp. Proudly G-rated, "Mr. Bean's Holiday" is a throwback to a strain of gentle, purely visual Euro-slapstick that has all but died out in the past few decades. Even when the movie's coming up empty, you're glad it's in there pitching.
For those of you arriving late, Mr. Bean is the creation of British comic Rowan Atkinson, whom you may have met in his 1980s BBC/PBS series "Blackadder" or in "Johnny English" (2003). As seen in a long-running telly show and in the rather dreadful 1997 big-screen "Bean," the Mr. Bean character's a mostly silent clown made up of various bits: a dab of Chaplin, a smidgen of Pee-wee, a lot of Monty Python's Upper Class Twit. He's infantile but punctilious -- a refined idiot -- and Atkinson's rubbery face gives each of Bean's emotions the broad punch of a comic strip panel: proud, chagrined, sneaky, joyous.
In this outing, Mr. Bean wins a church raffle vacation to the south of France, but it's the getting there that takes up most of the movie. Mishaps abound with trains, buses, and automobiles, not to mention prawns and oysters. At one point, the film detours into a prolonged, borderline-surreal chase after a chicken with a ticket stuck to its foot, the gag's very corniness part of the joke.
Along the way, Bean picks up a traveling companion in a young boy (Max Baldry) separated from his father (Karel Roden). "Mr. Bean's Holiday" courts sentimentality at times, but the winsomeness is mostly theoretical. As scripted by a bevy of writers (including the gifted actor/playwright/pantomimist Simon McBurney), the movie is content to unfold at a lazy summer lope, each series of gags existing as a separate cell of comic invention.
Moviegoers with long memories will, of course, recognize the title's nod to 1953's "Mr. Hulot's Holiday," and the airy timing, if not the comic precision of the great Jacques Tati is honored here. A bit where Bean hitchhikes along a French roadside, waiting patiently as a moped traveling 2 miles per hour draws nearer (and nearer . . . and nearer . . .) is the sort of devilishly deadpan joke that American movies would flatten in their race to the finish line.
There are also a few gags stolen outright from Tati, as well as some plot developments "borrowed" from "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and a little worse for wear. And there are the moments of unexpected genius: Bean and the boy acting out the aria "O Mio Babbino Caro" in a marketplace karaoke act that suddenly turns weirdly moving.
Eventually "Mr. Bean's Holiday" works its way to Cannes, where the hero picks up a sort-of love interest in a pert French actress (Emma de Caunes, very fetching) while bringing the pompous film director Carson Clay (Willem Dafoe) to grief. Here things turn merely silly, as opposed to inspired-silly. Dafoe isn't exactly known for his light comedy work, but at least he got a trip to France out of it, and so do we. In the film's charming denouement, the entire cast sings along to a French-language version of "Beyond the Sea," Mr. Bean finally reaches the beach, and the waves wash the letters "FIN" away. Somewhere, Jacques Tati is smiling.