Director: Mel Smith
Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Peter MacNicol, Pamela Reed, Harris Yulin, Burt Reynolds
Watch Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / Google Play
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Mr Bean was a landmark in British comedy, right from the start of the 1990s. Debuting on ITV on the very first day of the decade, Rowan Atkinson reunited with Blackadder writer Richard Curtis to clown around as the tweed-suited buffoon for 15 episodes and created a modern Chaplin-esque character who became popular around the world. It’s typical, then, that the inevitable movie binned all that pesky universal appeal in a bid to sell itself directly to American audiences.
In The Ultimate Disaster Movie, as it was billed upon its UK release, Bean is a much-maligned employee of London’s National Gallery, whose board members big him up as a noted art historian in order to get rid of him on a work trip abroad for three months. A wealthy benefactor (Burt Reynolds) has paid an awful lot of money to bring the famous American painting, Whistler’s Mother, to a gallery in California. The Brits send Bean over to open the hotly-anticipated exhibit, much to the chagrin of gallery employee David (Peter MacNicol) and his family, who have to look after the hapless “Dr. Bean”.
With a post-Four Weddings Curtis and his series co-writer Robin Driscoll penning the screenplay, it seems almost like a deliberate meta-commentary that this story-driven Americanisation of Bean is a plot about the clash between art and commerce. The film divides pretty cleanly along those lines too; all the silent comedy sequences play magnificently and all the higher stakes plot points that glue them together wind up feeling somewhat redundant.
MacNicol gamely plays the straight man, often unsuccessfully wrangling his fed-up family and the anarchic force that is Bean at the same time. But his exasperated art lover is another spin on the decade’s popular Disney dad archetype to give audiences a way in. That’s a box into which Atkinson’s character does not easily fit, especially when it requires him to be more verbose in his strangled exclamations than in any other medium. As with the early 1990s Tom and Jerry movie, he speaks so much more than he did on telly, and yet has so little to say.
By contrast, the three extended set pieces in which he just gets to do his thing are real highlights, living up to the potential of what a bigger-budget Bean adventure could actually be, including the destruction and subsequent triumphant return of the feted painting, and an emergency room mix-up that manages to calm down the over-the-top stakes and sentimentality long enough to get some real laughs. The biggest laugh still comes from Bean’s crude repair job to the ruined face of Whistler’s Mother.
With British director Mel Smith on hand to maintain some of the character’s integrity, Bean doesn’t say a word throughout these sequences. This is where composer Howard Goodall really shines as well, counterpointing the obvious needle drops (you could watch any three California-set 90s movies in a row and never want to hear Randy Newman sing I Love L.A. ever again) with a score that juggles the grander emotional scope with the more chaotic comedy. His Whistler’s Mother motif, which gradually becomes a theme for Bean himself, is a masterpiece that mixes a soaring orchestral melody with the sound of a piano tumbling down an escalator.
For a character whose appeal transcends the language barrier, the US specificity of the film is so hysterically unnecessary that it’s often its most remembered aspect. Even though the sequel Mr. Bean’s Holiday (also streaming, at the time of writing) is set in France, where the character is arguably most popular, it’s still a return to the silent comedy style and is more fondly remembered for it.
However, if you’ve ever liked the character, there’s a lot to enjoy in the first Bean. From the title character’s newly discovered altruism and soppiness to the sore-thumb cameo by Reynolds, it largely feels calculated to break America, but that’s not to say it’s not entertaining with it. Atkinson makes a consummate clown as always and even though the character is unnecessarily stretched in order to fill a feature-length running time, he yields reliably entertaining results.
Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.
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