Reviewed by: D.J. Williams
British comedian Rowan Atkinson is probably the funniest man on the planet you’ve never heard of. Wildly popular in Britain, he is lesser well known on this side of the Atlantic. Most that do know of him here know him as Mr. Bean, the title character of his hilarious British TV show and ensuing movie. Atkinson’s Mr. Bean sketches were true comic genius, showcasing his incredible comment for physical comedy and hilarious looks. Though the Bean movie was hampered by a plot, its sketch pieces (largely taken from the TV show) were still incredibly funny.
Now, having left Mr. Bean behind, Atkinson stars in “Johnny English”, the new spy-spoof that, unfortunately, not even Atkinson can save.
Atkinson, as the title character, plays a bumbling assistant in the British secret service. When every other agent is killed in an attack, English is called up to work security detail on the newly restored crown jewels. The jewels, however, are stolen, part of a plot by the devious French entrepreneur Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich) to assume the throne of England. Though his bosses say Sauvage is clean, Johnny knows better, and sets off with his assistant Bough (Ben Miller) to bring the jewels home, win one for dear old England, and woo the beautiful Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia).
While the premise of the man who brought us Mr. Bean playing a bumbling secret agent sounds promising, the film doesn’t deliver the goods. Atkinson keeps the movie afloat, delighting with several funny sequences and making the whole thing bearable to watch. The man’s pure genius can’t be denied, especially when he’s making us laugh in the middle of an otherwise terrible movie. Once in a while, shades of Bean shine through, and when they do the results are terrific. It just doesn’t happen often enough.
Primarily to blame, I think, is Neal Purvis and Robert Wade’s screenplay. The two have proven they can write a great spy movie (The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day), but judging by this film they don’t know how to spoof one. Atkinson gets very few chances to showcase his talent, fighting a script that really isn’t funny at all. Most of the gags, with a couple exceptions, come off as incredibly predicable and run into the ground.
Luckily, Atkinson is so good that he makes us laugh anyway. Presented with some better material, he could have made a real gem here. His supporting cast could have used some help as well. Miller adds some life as Bough, complementing Atkinson nicely, but everyone else falls flat. Imbruglia, in her big-screen debut, needs to stick to her recording contract.
Even the usually captivating Malkovich is just plain awful here. Though his inclusion as the villain added to the film’s great promise, he actually contributed to its downfall. Much of it may be the role, but Malkovich fails to inject any life into it at all. His French accent is distractingly bad, intended or not, and he fails to produce any laughs.
No, the film is left up to Atkinson, which is not entirely a bad thing provided he has a decent screenplay to work with. Since that’s not the case, “Johnny English” just doesn’t provide enough laughs to sustain itself over its 87 minute running time.
It has been argued by the producers that kids, boys especially, will love the movie, and that may be true. The film does seem more particularly aimed at kids than the “Mr. Bean” episodes. However, the adult audience that has come to expect so much of Atkinson after Bean will be a little let down here. Yes, he provides a few laughs, but as a whole the movie fails to deliver. So, take the kids if you must, but don’t expect a whole lot.
For a truly wonderful comedic evening, go out and rent some Mr. Bean TV episodes on video or DVD (the movie is fairly funny, but the TV sketches are far better). If you’ve never seen Atkinson do his thing, you’ve sure to be delighted by every devious and bumbling antic. Once you’ve got a taste of the hilarity of Mr. Bean, you’ll realize that this isn’t simply a kids movie that will fail to entertain the grown ups, but a true waste of comic genius.
Note: The film is rated PG for comic nudity (a sequence involving an identifying tattoo on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s backside), some crude humor (particularly one scene of bathroom humor), and language (a few mild profanities, but pretty sparse). This is a Rowan Atkinson film, so don’t expect anything close to a serious issue, Christian or otherwise. The PG is appropriate, considering the rear nudity. Though the movie won’t appeal to very young kids, an audience ranging from kids to adults should view the film with discretion.