Mr. Bean's Holiday

(2007) ** 1/2 G
90 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Steve Bendelack. Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Willem Dafoe, Emma De Caunes, Jean Rochefort, Karel Roden.

Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean character has always been a special effect. Set aside the fact that, in Mr. Bean's Holiday, the actor appears not to have aged in the decade since the character's first film, Bean. It's the rubbery facial contortions and limber, precision full-body commitment that make Bean a sight to behold. The mouth-breathing character also has that rare and curious mix of the loathsome and lovable: he's a childish innocent, and contentedly unethical and immoral when a selfish move will make his life a bit easier.

Both Bean and its sequel carefully conjure situations that force Bean guiltily to put others before himself, a choice calculated by the filmmakers to redeem Bean--in a family-film context--for his other shenanigans. Both films present a young boy who learns to love Bean as his spiritual kin, and both films climactically seek to restore broken families. As a fringe benefit, both Bean films also puncture art-world pretension. While Mel Smith's first film mocked the self-seriousness of the art gallery, Steve Bendelack's Mr. Bean's Holiday goes to work on egotistical film auteurs.

This time, Mr. Bean wins a church raffle, which sends him on a vacation in France. Nothing goes smoothly when Mr. Bean is around, including getting to his destination. On the way, he separates Russian boy Stepan (Max Baldry of Rome) from his father (Karel Roden of Running Scared). Taking unaccustomed responsibility, Bean sets about reuniting the child with his father; as it turns out, they and an aspiring actress (Emma de Caunes) are all headed the same place: Cannes, where the 59th International Cannes Film Festival is about to begin...

Atkinson's over-the-top clowning is catnip for the wee ones, but adults will find it an acquired taste. In accordance with the character's roots in mime and silent film, there's very little English dialogue in the screenplay by Hamish McColl and Robin Driscoll (the latter has written for every incarnation of Mr. Bean), developed from a story by Simon McBurney. McBurney and McColl--and, on occasion, Driscoll--are performers themselves, which helps in writing material to exploit Atkinson.

But in the absence of guiding light Richard Curtis, and with Atkinson himself reportedly of two minds about returning to the Bean-field, Mr. Bean's Holiday lacks the inventive verve of the stage and TV versions. Despite its flaws, Smith's film had a pressure-cooker story and outrageous situations that found Bean committing a crime against humanity, appearing to make love to a bathroom hand-dryer, and having to fake an art lecture (in a small, rare diamond of dialogue). The sequel by Bendelack (The League of Gentleman) is decidedly more low key, and never reaches the well-rehearsed heights of the series.

Bean contends with a seafood platter, devises an impromptu street performance, causes havoc on the set of a commercial, and disrupts a film festival event. It's all mildly amusing, but hardly ever as clever as one expects from Atkinson. At least the character remains appealingly naive, as he proudly records his exploits on a palm-held video camera and applies cracked logic to solving problems. Jean Rochefort (as a maitre'd) and Willem Dafoe (as a pretentious director) play foils to Atkinson in what's been called Bean's swan song. Given the film's overseas haul thus far, perhaps Atkinson won't turn down the lucrative opportunity to give the character a more creative send-off.

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