the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Monday, August 20, 2007

Mr. Bean's Holiday

In 1953, French actor and director Jacques Tati invented the character of Monsieur Hulot, a nearly mute, good-hearted but clumsy man who is so flummoxed by the modern world that he causes accidents and misunderstandings everywhere he goes. The film was Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday) about a visit to a seaside resort, and it would make Tati so famous that he would later revisit the character in four additional, equally enchanting films, including 1967’s masterful Playtime. The films suppressed nearly all dialogue in order to elevate the sound effects associated with Tati’s astonishing, physically comic gags.

Englishman Rowan Atkinson’s “Mr. Bean” has always owed a massive debt to Tati and Hulot, playing what is in essence an Anglo version of the Franco character. This is nowhere more evident (and intentionally so) than in what is purported to be Mr. Bean’s final performance, Mr. Bean's Holiday. The film starts in soggy, rain-soaked England where Mr. Bean wins a raffle ticket for a free camcorder and a trip to the French Riviera. It ends in sunny Cannes as a buttoned up Bean saunters cluelessly amidst the glitteratzi at the prestigious Cannes film festival. How Bean gets from here to there is the plot of the film.

Perhaps plot is too precise a term. Mr. Bean’s Holiday essentially has no plot in the same way that it has little to no dialogue. Like Hulot, Bean doesn’t say much, communicating mostly though grunts and unintelligible drivel. The film is a pastiche of various gags stitched together into something resembling a narrative. Because of its stream of consciousness style, settling on a ridged plot is awkward. To explain that Bean accidentally separates a father and son on a train from Paris to Cannes and spends the bulk of the film trying to reunite them could be construed as the plot, though the film is far more interested (as it should be) in the slapstick gags that occur along the way as Atkinson’s buffoon mugs for his camera and ours.

There is Bean in an uppity Parisian restaurant playing with prawns. There is a melodramatic street performance set to Puccini. There is the big-budget Hollywood World War II blockbuster where Bean shows up dressed as a goose-stepping Nazi (the movie within a movie is directed by none other than Willem Defoe as a preening egotist whom even the French cannot stand and whose film, “Playback Time” is yet another nod to Tati). There is an all-night drive in which Bean tries everything possible not to fall asleep on the road.

Not all of the gags soar and none rise to the genius of Tati. But Atkinson’s antics are nonetheless charming — the sort of unbridled physical humor we simply don’t see any more. Mr. Bean’s Holiday is a film stuck in the wrong century, more akin to classic silent comedy than modern humor and Bean himself is a clown caught without his make-up, psychedelically colored pants and bright red nose.

There is something unrepentantly joyous about Mr. Bean’s Holiday. Its simplicity is its strength. It helps to come to the film with a childlike attitude and a sense of whimsy. No, it’s not grand comedy nor is it trying to be particularly brilliant, but it is sincere and sweetly endearing.


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