100 Film Favorites – #70: Bean: The Movie
(Mel Smith, 1997)
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In this film, Mr. Bean is the eccentric security guard at the Royal National Gallery in London. Though most of the museum staff dislike the bizarre and bumbling Bean, the chairman of the board is fond of him and refuses to fire him. When the Gallery is asked to send an art expert to hold a seminar at a Los Angeles art museum to celebrate the return of the painting Whistler’s Mother to America, they opt to send “Dr. Bean” in place of a real scholar, to be rid of him.
Upon his arrival, Bean is taken in by David Langley (Peter MacNicol), the curator of the American gallery, who believes Bean to be an educated art critic and invites him into his home, much to the chagrin of his wife and children. After a series of absurd pratfalls (losing his watch while stuffing a turkey, then lodging his head inside the turkey to find the watch, for instance) the family figure out much quicker than David that “Dr.” Bean is not all the London Gallery has made him out to be.
The well-meaning but very weird Mr. Bean gradually drives a wedge between David and his family, causing his wife and kids to leave the house. When David finally realizes Bean isn’t really an art expert (too late to keep Bean from sneezing on the priceless painting and then “cleaning” it with paint thinner), he is despondent.
However, the wacky genius of Bean prevails…overnight, Bean masterminds a plan to sneak into the gallery and replace the painting with a life-size poster (painted over with egg-white to give the appearance of brushstrokes in oil paint). The painting is unveiled to much acclaim at the ceremony, and the typically silent Mr. Bean manages to improvise an inspiring speech about how Whistler’s Mother reflects the value of family – something he has come to learn a lot about during his time with David and the Langleys. The day is saved, order is restored, and Bean returns to England…where it’s revealed he’s kept the original Whistler’s Mother, disfigured face and all, as a souvenir.
Though I generally strive to highlight the positive in these films, I fear this post may consist primarily of “reasons this film did not make #1.” The movie has some glaring flaws, which, if not present, could easily place Bean: The Movie among my top 10 or so favorite films.
The first obvious problem: David. David is set up as the protagonist, who must keep his job and family from falling apart as a result of Mr. Bean’s wacky antics. I get the feeling the viewer is supposed to sympathize with his plight and the many tribulations which befall him as the oblivious Bean ambles from one surreal caper to the next. But the character, or the actor, or both, are so whiny and obnoxious that rather than rooting for him, you find yourself relishing his suffering. Additionally, while Bean’s misadventures often cause problems, David has a habit of expressing his distress loudly, violently, and often vulgarly, to a degree which is off-putting and (to me at least) considerably diminishes the quality of some of the film’s key scenes. Maybe I just don’t like Peter MacNicol. He ruined “Ghostbusters II” for me, too.
Second: Talking. The original Mr. Bean television series is predominately silent. The humor arises from Bean’s idiosyncratic habits and his odd way of interacting with objects and other people. It’s very much Rowan Atkinson’s chance to embrace his inner silent film comedian, and the character of Bean only ever mutters short, gruff phrases of a word or two. In this film, talk is far more frequent, coming largely from the members of the Langley family. However, Bean gets in on the act too, delivering the longest speech in his entire filmography at the unveiling of the painting. I actually rather liked this speech. It’s brief and touching, and to me at least sounds like the kind of thing Bean might say if really pressed to talk at length.
But the Langleys shouldn’t talk. There’s no need for that.
Third: “Americanization.” Most of the time, I love America. But when it comes to the bowdlerization of Bean, my patriotism wanes a bit. In watching this film, one gets the impression that most of its bad decisions probably resulted from changes made to appeal to an American film studio. One can imagine executives asking, “What’s the draw to a weird, off-putting, silent, foreigner character?” “How about we relocate him to America?” “How about we throw him in with an uptight family, and have him teach them something about having a free spirit, and have them teach him something about the value of family?” “And how about everyone talks and swears a lot?”
After this review, you might not be queuing up to see Bean. But it does have enough positive elements to make the Countdown. There are still plenty of bits which retain the essence of the television show (or “programme,” if you’re British). From Mr. Bean shaving his tongue as part of his morning routine, to pretending to have a gun at the airport (to look as cool as the police), to overclocking the settings of a 4-D carnival attraction for a more exciting ride, “Bean: The Movie” holds enough Beaniness to please fans of the series willing to overlook the film’s flaws. When it’s funny, it’s very, very funny (and when I worked for a year at a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum operating a 4-D theater, I was sorely tempted to emulate the comedic stylings of Bean). Like I’ve said, I’m a sucker for eccentric characters finding success by embracing their own weirdness, and that’s one particular storytelling trope that “Bean” has in spades.
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.