Rowan Atkinson

The Tall Guy (1989, Mel Smith)

Mel Smith is a stunningly inept director. Especially for comedy. Though, given its awkward flashback montages, lack of supporting character resolutions, impromptu musical number, and just over ninety minute runtime, it sure seems like there might be a longer version of The Tall Guy out there. As is, The Tall Guy is way too skinny. So maybe it’s not all Smith’s fault. Or maybe it’s just editor Dan Rae’s fault. Maybe Smith directed a bunch of good comedy and Rae just screwed it all up. Maybe there’s some explanation for why it doesn’t work.

Because lead Jeff Goldblum is really cute. He’s really cute with romantic interest Emma Thompson. The movie’s not cute, but they’re cute. They carry a lot with this movie and don’t get anything in return. Richard Curtis’s script short changes them just as much as everyone else. Including third-billed Rowan Atkinson, who’s an inflated cameo. It’s weird. So maybe there’s a good reason for it.

It’s the fairly familiar tale of American actor Goldblum trying to make it in London. He can’t get any parts because he’s too tall apparently, which isn’t clear for a while because he’s employed at the start of the movie. He works for Atkinson, who’s a bastard physical comedian with a hit stage show. Goldblum’s his sidekick. And Goldblum doesn’t seem to have any ambition past being Atkinson’s sidekick. He just wishes Atkinson would be nice to him. And he wishes his roommate Geraldine James would at least have the courtesy of bringing home a dude to buff who isn’t going to drink Goldblum’s orange juice. Goldblum’s a man of few pleasures, orange juice is one of them.

Until Goldblum has to get his seasonal allergies resolved because it’s screwing up his performance—only it’s not, it’s just getting him laughs and Atkinson is a prima donna who can’t handle anyone else getting laughs. That single tidbit of character motivation for Atkinson is more than Goldblum or anyone else in the film gets. Anyway, Goldblum has to go to the doctor, there he meets nurse Thompson and falls for her immediately. The reminder of the first act is Goldblum getting shots for his allergies from Thompson, not asking her out, whining about not asking her out to roommate James, cue comic bit about what James’s lover of the moment is doing (usually hidden from view and humorously contorted), repeat.

Once Goldblum does go out with Thompson, they immediately get physical in a raucous love-making scene you know is supposed to be funny but it’s really more just dumb. It also results in Goldblum losing his job with Atkinson, which kicks off the second act proper as Thompson will soon tell Goldlbum he’s got to get another job because she’s not dating some bum actor.

Now all of a sudden it’s supposed to be believable Goldblum’s employable as a professional stage actor. This time the absurdity of his potential projects generates the charm, as the film phases out Thompson and Goldbum’s romance, then Thompson almost entirely. How’s Goldblum feel about it? Who knows. He doesn’t have the depth of a head shot.

Affable performances all around, though by the third act you’ve got to wonder how Goldblum and Thompson kept a straight-face through the disastrous third act. Professionalism, pass it on.

Atkinson always seems like he’s about to be really funny and it never pays off.

Anna Massey is fun as Goldblum’s agent.

There’s a poppy score from Peter Brewis. It’s rather energetic, which is something since the film manages to drag even at ninety-two minutes.

Adrian Biddle’s photography is solid.

Smith could be worse at composing shots. He could be as bad at it as he is directing actors.

The Tall Guy’s problematic execution give the film its charm through the first half plus a few, but then once it shatters that charm—intentionally—it’s got nothing to replace it with. Not in the acting, writing, or directing. It’s a bummer for Goldblum, Thompson, and Atkinson; they deserve something for keeping the film afloat. Against some considerable odds.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Smith; screenplay by Richard Curtis; director of photography, Adrian Biddle; edited by Dan Rae; music by Peter Brewis; production designer, Grant Hicks; produced by Paul Webster; released by Virgin Vision.

Starring Jeff Goldblum (Dexter King), Emma Thompson (Kate Lemon), Rowan Atkinson (Ron Anderson), Emil Wolk (Cyprus Charlie), Geraldine James (Carmen), and Kim Thomson (Cheryl).



Rat Race (2001, Jerry Zucker)

If you had told me there was a movie with John Cleese in funny fake teeth and Smash Mouth as a plot point (a positive one), I don’t know I would’ve believed it. But if there is going to be a movie with John Cleese in funny fake teeth and Smash Mouth as in a positive cameo… it’s going to be a movie like Rat Race. Rat Race is a big budget situation comedy masquerading as a madcap comedy adventure. Cleese is a Las Vegas casino owner who sends six or seven or twelve random people on a race from Vegas to New Mexico. Whoever gets there first gets two million dollars. Little do the contestants know Cleese has arranged the whole thing as a bet for a group of high owners at the casino.

Though it wouldn’t matter much because the stuff with Cleese and the high rollers is just for interlude gags.

The main race contestants are Cuba Gooding Jr. and Jon Lovitz. Maybe not in screen time (but maybe in screen time, it’s not worth counting), but definitely in extreme gags. Gooding at one point has stolen a charter busload of “I Love Lucy” Lucy cosplayers and Lovitz kind of kidnaps his family to go on the race with him (he doesn’t tell them about the race because he’s Jon Lovitz and it wouldn’t work if he wasn’t a liar). Then there are the couples. Breckin Meyer is a pointlessly straight-laced young lawyer (his character details don’t matter at all) who gets helicopter pilot Amy Smart involved in the race; he’s crushing on her, she’s not crushing on him. Whoopi Goldberg was at the casino to meet long-lost daughter Lanai Chapman; not long-lost but Goldberg gave her up for adoption. Again, the character details don’t end up mattering at all. Once the couples are paired, they’re paired. Like idiot brothers Seth Green and Vince Vieluf (who apparently dropped his agent for not getting him more face time on Rat Race promotional material, but should’ve sued him for letting him do the role, which has him suffering from an infected tongue ring piercing and unintelligible the whole time—Andy Breckman’s screenplay never goes cheap or obvious when it can do both at once). Green’s the weasel, Vieluf’s the dumb lug. Evil George and Lenny, basically. They talk about splitting up for about a half hour of the film’s near two hour runtime but never actually get around to it. Breckman’s script also has its red herrings to fill runtime.

Because somehow it matters Rat Race goes on for near two hours? Like the runtime is going to give it legitimacy.

The last contestant is Rowan Atkinson, who appears to have done Rat Race in yet another attempt to breakthrough in the Colonies. Snideness aside, Atkinson’s great. Everything he does is great. Even when it’s in his dumb subplot involving jackass ambulance driver Wayne Knight and a transplant heart.

Rat Race is kind of a catch-22. The subplots are so bland, you need someone as bland as Meyer do one of them. And, frankly, Smart too. They’re both middling. She’s a little better, but only because Meyer’s unable to appear to listen or think. Green and Vieluf do a lot of terribly executed, large scale physical humor. Director Zucker isn’t necessarily really bad at the giant sight gags, it’s just he’s using CGI and it’s poorly done. And Thomas E. Ackerman’s photography is bad. It’s more often less competent than competent. So you don’t care Green and Vieluf are one-note because the scenes are so perfunctory, even when they’re effective. Zucker’s got a couple good shots in the movie—establishing shots for the large-scale sight gags—and they’re the same shot. It’s like he has one good shot, but only two opportunities to use it. The rest of the time… middling direction.

Cleese too. He’s really funny. Especially with those fake teeth. But it’s a movie where the joke is John Cleese in some obviously fake fake teeth.

Dave Thomas has a really small part and, much like Atkinson, is able to get away successful. Goldberg isn’t bad, she’s just not successful. The movie ditches her and Chapman pretty quick, after one really funny sequence.

Gooding and Lovitz are both… inoffensive, while managing to also be the least sympathetic characters in the film. Maybe because Gooding’s supposed to somehow be inherently sympathetic because he’s a victim of unfair public shaming and because Lovitz is supposed to be saddled with an annoying family (wife Kathy Najimy wants to see David Copperfeld instead of gamble and spend time with husband Lovitz because… harpy?; the kids are just annoying, but end up being sympathetic because Lovitz is… Lovitz). I already said Atkinson is great. Who else is there… Green and Vieluf. Vieluf’s more likable than Green and probably better. Green just mugs.

Last thing. The music. Not the Smash Mouth performance, which sucks, but the “score” by John Powell, which reuses familiar classical ditties like In the Hall of the Mountain King and some also La Traviata. Trust me, you’ve heard the music. Probably in television commercials because it’s effective music. Just culturally rote. And that music ends up in some big set pieces, so it’s unclear what Powell’s actually bringing to the film other than making it sound consistent with a television commercial.

Rat Race is cheap and obvious but occasionally funny and usually inoffensive.

And Atkinson is exceptional.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jerry Zucker; written by Andy Breckman; director of photography, Thomas E. Ackerman; edited by Tom Lewis; music by John Powell; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Sean Daniel, Janet Zucker, and Jerry Zucker; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Cuba Gooding Jr. (Owen Templeton), Jon Lovitz (Randy Pear), Rowan Atkinson (Enrico Pollini), Breckin Meyer (Nick Schaffer), Amy Smart (Tracy Faucet), Seth Green (Duane Cody), Vince Vieluf (Blaine Cody), Whoopi Goldberg (Vera Baker), Lanei Chapman (Merrill Jennings), Kathy Najimy (Beverly Pear), Wayne Knight (Zack Mallozzi), Dave Thomas (Harold Grisham), and John Cleese (Donald P. Sinclair).


Johnny English (2003, Peter Howitt)

Johnny English runs just under ninety minutes, which is one of the film’s secret weapons–nothing ever goes on too long, not the good stuff, not the bad stuff, not the mediocre stuff. There’s not a lot of bad stuff–more varying degrees of mediocre; when things then get better, when things finally pay off, it’s a cause for celebration. When Johnny English gets funny, it gets funny.

The film is a Rowan Atkinson vehicle masquerading as an incredibly safe James Bond spoof. Atkinson is a British Security Service office worker who gets promoted to number one agent. Because, through his incompetence, everyone else has been killed. Somehow his boss, Tim Pigott-Smith, never holds Atkinson accountable for the very inept and dangerous things he’s done, instead railing on him for the things where Atkinson is actually right.

Like how French private prison-owning billionaire John Malkovich is a bad guy.

Malkovich is another of English’s secret weapons, because he doesn’t play his part like a Bond villain. He plays it like a goofy Malkovich comedy part. He’s never outrageous or campy–unfortunately–but he’s always got enough energy to make the scenes work. Atkinson never gets to be showy. Malkovich gets to be showy. He’s the only one who gets to be showy.

Bringing us to the other–and probably last–secret weapon: Ben Miller. He plays Atkinson’s subordinate. Miller is the spy office peon who should be the secret agent. There’s a lengthy period where Miller’s not in the film and Atkinson is playing sidekick to real secret agent Natalie Imbruglia and Malkovich isn’t really in the movie and it gets long. There are also too many poop jokes. Because without Miller and Malkovich around, English has to go into the literal potty to get some humor going.

Because Imbruglia doesn’t bring anything. It’s not a great part and she’s not terrible, but she’s got no presence and less personality. Her comic timing–at least in her timing as it reacts to Atkinson–is fine though.

Atkinson has some great physical comedy in English. Nowhere near enough, but the movie wouldn’t really know what to do with any more. Director Howitt does an adequate, uninspired job. He doesn’t get in the way of the good jokes and he doesn’t make the bad ones any worse. So he wouldn’t know what to do with more physical comedy. Howitt’s impatient, while everyone else seems completely comfortable not being rushed. Not ninety minutes but also not rushed. The film’s self-awareness about its limitations increases its charm.

Anyway, back to Atkinson. He’s good. He’s hilarious at times. His straight man performance as the stupid secret agent is most impressive–at least during the expository scenes–in how seriously Atkinson takes the part. He’s going for it’s funny because he’s so serious. When other actors aren’t as serious about their parts as Atkinson, it hurts. Imbruglia, for example. Miller gets it, Malkovich gets it. Pigott-Smith not really.

Of course, the writing tends to be thin. Pigott-Smith not transcending the caricature isn’t entire his fault.

Howitt’s lack of enthusiasm for directing his actors–he showcases the comedy, focusing tightly on the comedy, not the actors essaying it–doesn’t help either.

Technically the film’s fine. Nothing stands out, good or bad. The music isn’t overtly “Bond,” which is kind of nice, and the Robbie Williams theme song is fun.

Thanks to Atkinson (and the professionally executed production), it’d be difficult for Johnny English to fail too hard. It’s both a surprisingly pleasant comedy and a not insignificant disappointment. With Atkinson, Miller, and Malkovich, it seems like it could be better. However, it’s not clear if it should be any better.

Additionally… if you’re going to have Prunella Scales play the Queen, give her at least one joke. What should be an inspired comedic casting is instead an end credits curio.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Howitt; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and William Davies; director of photography, Remi Adefarasin; edited by Robin Sales; music by Ed Shearmur; production designer, Chris Seagers; produced by Eric Fellner, Mark Huffam, and Lucette Legot; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Rowan Atkinson (Johnny English), John Malkovich (Pascal Sauvage), Natalie Imbruglia (Lorna Campbell), Ben Miller (Bough), Tim Pigott-Smith (Pegasus), Oliver Ford Davies (Archbishop of Canterbury), and Kevin McNally (Prime Minister).


Mr. Bean’s Holiday (2007, Steve Bendelack)

From start to finish, Mr. Bean’s Holiday proves a constant delight. Hamish McColl and Robin Driscoll’s plot is simple–send Rowan Atkinson’s constantly aloof and impossibly unlucky Mr. Bean to France on a holiday. There’s an immediate scene establishing the travel route and then Atkinson gets in trouble at every point along the way.

He eventually gains a young sidekick in Max Baldry, a nemesis in Willem Dafoe and a lady friend in Emma de Caunes. Of course, Atkinson doesn’t talk much and Baldry speaks Russian and de Caunes speaks French. So no one can understand each other, except when Dafoe’s screaming (in English). There’s a whole connection with Cannes Film Festival, but it never feels too forced; the way the film introduces Dafoe (as a pretentious director) is brilliant. The script sets it up passively in one set piece, then brings it up later. It’s such a memorable establishing scene, however, it needs time to fully ripen.

Part of the story involves Atkinson videotaping everything on a camcorder. Director Bendelack nicely mixes the footage in, sometimes utilizing the camcorder footage to further the main plot. It’s a great device for the film, particularly since the camcorder is the plot catalyst.

Beautiful photography from Baz Irvine and a great score from Howard Goodall, don’t want to forget those.

The three principal costars are great–Dafoe, de Caunes, Baldry–and they have great chemistry with the phenomenal Atkinson.

Aside from some slight pacing issues, Holiday is masterful comedy. It’s short, simple and near perfect.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Bendelack; screenplay by Hamish McColl and Robin Driscoll, based on a story by Simon McBurney and a character created by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis; director of photography, Baz Irvine; edited by Tony Cranstoun; music by Howard Goodall; production designer, Michael Carlin; produced by Peter Bennett-Jones, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Emma de Caunes (Sabine), Max Baldry (Stepan), Willem Dafoe (Carson Clay), Jean Rochefort (Maitre’D), Karel Roden (Emil) and Steve Pemberton (Vicar).


Bean (1997, Mel Smith)

I’m trying to imagine how Bean would play to someone unfamiliar with the television show. Depending on one’s tolerance for bland family comedy-dramas, it might actually play better. Because Bean, the movie, removes a lot of Bean, Rowan Atkinson’s character, and instead fills the time with Peter MacNicol and his problems.

His job is on the line and his wife of presumably sixteen plus years has decided their marriage is on the rocks because of those problems with his job. Pamela Reed plays the wife and she’s exceptionally unsympathetic in her anger. Screenwriters Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll don’t just do a hatch job with the characterizations, they keep it going and going.

Some of the problem is director Mel Smith. He resists ever shooting the film from Atkinson’s perspective, except in the longer slapstick sequences, but he also doesn’t direct the film around him well. Harris Yulin especially stumbles around looking for direction. The supporting cast is mostly indistinct, though Burt Reynolds gets a smile or two and Larry Drake gets an actual laugh.

With all the celebrity cameos, Bean should feel bigger. But Smith doesn’t know how to direct it big. Or small. Until the ludicrous finish, the script’s tolerable. Tepid, but tolerable. The finish is atrocious though.

So why’s Bean all right, even with the finish? Because Atkinson is really, really funny and he never acts like there’s anything wrong with the film. He’s fully committed, even though his character’s constantly changing.

The film shamefully fails him.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Smith; screenplay by Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll, based on characters created by Rowan Atkinson and Curtis; director of photography, Francis Kenny; edited by Chris Blunden; music by Howard Goodall; production designer, Peter S. Larkin; produced by Peter Bennett-Jones, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Peter MacNicol (David Langley), Pamela Reed (Alison Langley), Harris Yulin (George Grierson), Burt Reynolds (General Newton), Larry Drake (Elmer), Chris Ellis (Det. Butler), Johnny Galecki (Stingo Wheelie), Richard Gant (Lt. Brutus), Danny Goldring (Security Buck), Andrew Lawrence (Kevin Langley), Tom McGowan (Walter Merchandise), Sandra Oh (Bernice Schimmel), Tricia Vessey (Jennifer Langley) and John Mills (Chairman).


Love Actually (2003, Richard Curtis)

Richard Curtis–I think–said he wrote Love Actually from all his unused ideas. Just threw them into the oven and baked them together. To some degree, it shows. Unlike the usual big cast films, with lots of incidental meetings and relationships (as P.T. Anderson wrote, these things “happen all the time”), Love Actually is very loose. The characters are connected by thin contrivances and a school play. Curtis is very visibly not working with themes here or making any insightful observations into the human condition.

Amusingly, though its thesis is… well, love is all around and people in love are filled with superhuman perseverance and fortitude, Love Actually… actually disproves its own thesis. In a couple ways. The most visible is the breaking marriage between Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. Rickman’s got a wandering eye and, strangely, Curtis never tells the viewer how wrong he goes… which means it’s impossible to know where he or Thompson are at the end of the film. It’s intentional and cheap and, if either character were particularly effective–except the Thompson composing herself to Joni Mitchell scene–it would hurt the film. The second is more discreet. An utterly wasted Laura Linney is caring for her mentally ill brother. And how does she end up? How does Mr. Right respond to this news? By being a twerp. Curtis seems to have noticed too, because he just abandons Linney at the end.

Of all the stories–there are, I guess, eight–the most effective (as in, worthy of feature length treatment… something other big cast, lots of story line films never suggest) are Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon and Colin Firth and Lúcia Moniz.

The Grant and McCutcheon story is awesome–Grant’s the new prime minister, she serves him tea. It’s got Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters, it’s McCutcheon’s wonderful delivery of unintentional curses; it’s touching and their chemistry is wonderful. Throw in some more political turmoil and it’s a feature.

Firth and Moniz–he’s a lovelorn thriller novelist and she’s his maid (he’s in France writing, which looks incredibly civilized)–have a bit more comedic story going. Neither speaks the other’s language and, while the humor’s cheap, it’s very funny. Firth’s perfect in the role. So, figure he has a funny editor waiting for the novel and a family who would like a Portuguese daughter-in-law. Another feature.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, it’s hard to tell how it’d be much different), Curtis cheaps out big time on the Liam Neeson bonding with his stepson following the mother’s death. It’s the best work Neeson has done in years, but the story quickly becomes about the kid impressing a girl at school and Curtis gives Neeson the biggest copout ending in the world.

I suppose Bill Nighy, in a crazy, hilarious performance as an old rock star deserves his own paragraph but he’s not going to get one. The Nighy story is great, giving the film some much needed texture (the other characters watching Nighy on TV, for instance, ring a lot truer than the convenient school musical). There’s a lot more stuff, both funny and not so much (Curtis frequently confuses sincerely touching and melodramatic).

It’s a solid film, lots of problems, lots of good things, but it’s very unambitious. I’m left wanting more Firth and Moniz, more Grant and McCutcheon and… a) unlike Curtis’s other romantic comedies, it’s a weeding to see either again and b) I really shouldn’t be wanting them. It’s just another sign the film is not a successful ensemble picture, it’s just a bunch of disparate elements, good and not so good, strung awkwardly together.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Richard Curtis; director of photography, Michael Coulter; edited by Nick Moore; music by Craig Armstrong; production designer, Jim Clay; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Duncan Kenworthy; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Alan Rickman (Harry), Bill Nighy (Billy Mack), Colin Firth (Jamie), Emma Thompson (Karen), Hugh Grant (The Prime Minister), Laura Linney (Sarah), Liam Neeson (Daniel), Martine McCutcheon (Natalie), Heike Makatsh (Mia), Rowan Atkinson (Rufus), Lúcia Moniz (Aurelia), Martin Freeman (John), Joanna Page (Just Judy), Andrew Lincoln (Mark), Keira Knightley (Juliet) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Peter).


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