Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean character is an acquired taste—much like stout, caviar or snails. Whether or not he is a taste worth acquiring is another matter, and one I leave for someone else to figure out. In other words, if you like Mr. Bean, chances are you’re going to like Mr. Bean’s Holiday. If you find Mr. Bean a grating annoyance, this movie’s not going to change your mind. One person I know laughed hysterically throughout and claimed the film a work of “genius.” (Well, he had the same reaction to Date Movie, so make of that what you will.)
I’m somewhere on the borderline of Beandom. In general, Atkinson’s broad mugging is in that category that makes me yearn for the gun required to bring down the really big game. However, there are moments I’ve encountered over the years—Mr. Bean menacing a nativity scene in a department store with model dinosaurs, Mr. Bean with a turkey stuck on his head—that I thought were hysterically funny. Mr. Bean is a mixed bag—and one that works better in 30-minute doses than in 87 minutes of feature film.
Of course, 87 minutes of feature film is what we’re given with Mr. Bean’s Holiday—a work obviously inspired by Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953). Conceptually, this isn’t a bad idea, since Tati is also an acquired taste and as close to Mr. Bean as you’re likely to find. Both use pantomime and sight gags as opposed to dialogue, and both play characters so odd that they might be from outer space. The ideas for the two films are pretty similar in that each features a bumbling character on vacation who has a knack for leaving a trail of carnage in his wake, of which he is completely oblivious.
There is, however, a significant difference in that Monsieur Hulot is good-natured, well-intentioned and wants to be helpful, while Mr. Bean is—let’s face it—a self-absorbed jerk. Little instances tell the whole story. In a largely unfunny scene (salvaged somewhat by the great French character actor Jean Rochefort as the maître d’), Mr. Bean, horrified by the idea of eating raw oysters, goes to great pains to deposit the blobby mollusks in a lady’s handbag. M. Hulot might well have done so by accident, but he wouldn’t have done this intentionally. Similarly, when Mr. Bean inadvertently spills his froufrou coffee on a hapless traveler’s laptop computer, he not only ignores the issue as Hulot might have done, but he carefully salvages as much of his drink as possible from the laptop, suggesting a level of self-absorption far beyond that of M. Hulot. The film itself seems to recognize this utter lack of sympathy, and borrows a bit from a later M. Hulot adventure, Mon Oncle (1958). Mr. Bean is teamed up with a boy, Stepan (newcomer Max Baldry), who becomes fond of this “eccentric” Englishman—despite the fact that Mr. Bean is the very engine of destruction that parted the kid from his father (Karel Roden, Running Scared) in the first place.
There’s precious little story here, just a parade of gags built around Mr. Bean’s single-minded attempt to get to Cannes for his seaside holiday. And, of course, since he’s going to Cannes, the film festival gets dragged into it. This aspect of the film might have provided a truly spectacular climax, and while it does afford one terrific sight gag and a charming all-singing ending, it also works on one of the oldest clichés in the business. The concept of Mr. Bean interrupting egomaniacal filmmaker Carson Clay’s (Willem Dafoe) movie by showing his home videos and having it all mistaken for art by the audience could easily win the award for least original idea of the year.
Another thing that works against the film is director Steve Bendelack’s peculiar decision to shoot scenes with a shallow depth of field. This all but destroys several gags where the background action, depicting the trail of destruction that lies in Mr. Bean’s wake, is nothing more than an out-of-focus blur.
These concerns to one side, there’s no denying that not only are the physical gags clever, they’re refreshing to see in a day when this kind of carefully constructed visual comedy has almost completely vanished from the movies. (This may also be the single “family” comedy of the year that doesn’t have a single flatulence joke in it—a noteworthy accomplishment in itself.)
Other aspects of the film delight. Mr. Bean as the ultimate foreign traveler who thinks he knows three words of French—oui, non and gracias—is a nice touch. The bit where he mouths and mimes opera with the aid of Stepan to an appreciative audience is charming. His relationship with Stepan and his teaming up with an actress, Sabine (Emma de Caunes, The Science of Sleep), definitely help to make him more likable. At its best, Mr. Bean’s Holiday is a refreshing change of pace in the world of comedy. Unfortunately, it’s only at its best about two-thirds of the time. Rated G