Mr. Bean’s Holiday

Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean character was a hit when he debuted on British television in 1990. Then came the misguided 1997 feature film, which tried to Hollywoodize the character, ruined much of his appeal, and turned Mr. Bean into a comedy pariah. People began to roll their eyes at Mr. Bean, dismissing him as a lame, unfunny annoyance.

But in the beginning, he was funny! And “Mr Bean’s Holiday” overlooks the 1997 misfire and gets back to the roots of the character. It recalls the sketches that comprised the original TV series, the ones that were full of brilliant physical comedy and genuinely funny slapstick. While it’s not a perfect film, and though the case could be made that Mr. Bean is better in TV-sized doses, “Holiday” has a lot of innocent fun and hearty laughs.

The story has Mr. Bean winning a trip to the French Riviera in a church raffle, and of course his journey to Cannes (coinciding with the film festival there) is fraught with hijinks and misadventures. In particular, Bean accidentally causes a young boy (Max Baldry) to become separated from his father (Karel Roden) at a train station, and thus feels an obligation to help reunite them. The boy is mischievous, too, and he and Bean become partners in crime. Or partners in hijinks, anyway. Except Bean does steal a bicycle at one point. So I guess it is crime.

Bean is a throwback to the characters of the early silent films, and Atkinson’s amazing physical prowess and impeccable timing help him compare favorably with Chaplin, Keaton, etc. The character rarely speaks. There’s not much dialogue around him, either — indeed, most of the TV sketches and this film could easily work as silent pictures, accompanied only by music and occasional intertitles. I think Atkinson’s obvious affection for — and mastery of — those old comedy techniques has been overlooked by many of his critics.

“Holiday” was directed by Steve Bendelack — a regular in the British TV comedy world with a keen eye for visual humor — and written by Hamish McColl and longtime Bean contributor Robin Driscoll. Not every bit is a home run; my patience wears thin for sequences of Bean inadvertently destroying other people’s property, for example. But a high percentage of the scenarios are solidly funny, with Atkinson always fully committed to the moment, no matter how bizarre or absurd it may be.

I also note that this is the first “family-friendly” comedy I’ve seen in a while that did not contain a single fart. You learn to appreciate minor achievements like that when you see a lot of “family-friendly” comedies.

Finally, let me mention a secondary character in the film, a beautiful young French actress, Sabine (Emma de Caunes), whom Bean keeps running into. She is trying to make it to Cannes, too, because she has a small part in a film playing at the festival, directed by a pretentious American filmmaker named Carson Clay (Willem Dafoe, gamely mocking himself). We catch glimpses of the movie, and what we see is a surprisingly astute parody of introspective indie dramas, with dialogue such as “What is life but a teardrop in the eye of infinity?”

I like the subtle jab there. “Mr Bean’s Holiday” is very short on words and is meant to be a light, fun experience. Contrast that with the artsy Cannes fare and its incessant, stifling dialogue. Look down on Señor Bean if you choose, but would you rather sit through something talky and dull like Carson Clay’s movie? I’ve had enough of that, thank you. Bring on the guy getting his tie stuck in a vending machine!

B (1 hr., 25 min.; G, nothing objectionable.)