The normally astute Village Voice notes that the British spy comedy Johnny English is “smug with timely zingers like ‘The only thing the French should be allowed to host is an invasion,’” and “recommended strictly for Bush advisers.” But English was filmed early in 2002—it was released overseas last fall—and so its French jokes seem, to me, a relic of a simpler time, when the English and French could annoy each other for perfectly hilarious reasons. The potshots are brief and offhand, and contain none of the aggressively ignorant jingoism of the current U.S. quasi-barbs.
In fact, most of these “zingers” come from the title character himself (Rowan Atkinson, erstwhile Mr. Bean), who is depicted as a bit of a twit, though, perhaps inevitably, everyone comes off silly here, British and French alike. It’s hard to imagine the filmmakers have an alternate agenda, because English and the movie that bears his name have similarly simple goals: he wants only to be James Bond, icon of British cool, and the movie wants only to parody the Bond franchise.
Much has been made of the idea that, in the wake of the Austin Powers comedies, Bond movies have been parodied to death. But as many Bondian touches as the Powers films include, they’re more of a cultural goulash than direct Bond riffs. By now, three movies in, they maintain their own goofy vibe. There have been, of course, innumerable other spy spoofs over the years, but Johnny English is the first one in awhile that’s genuinely, well, English: Britain-bred, with almost exclusively English talent. Some question the need for another Bond parody; I say seeing Rowan Atkinson in the Bond role is need enough.
Too bad, then, that Johnny English lacks the deadpan lunacy of the best British comedy. It has a curious reserve about it, going through the motions with a pleasant smile. Things start out promisingly, when clumsy administrator Johnny English is given his chance at secret agent glory. After every single other agent has been unceremoniously killed off, he is suddenly England’s greatest, dubious hope.
From there, the film seems poised for success. Two of the screenwriters (Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) know the Bond formula firsthand, having written the two most recent proper Bond adventures; here they serve up appropriately inane versions of the requisite car chase, gadget love, and fortress penetration, but the movie is never quite inspired. Odd, because director Peter Howitt previously made Sliding Doors (1998), a sweetly nimble little Brit comedy. His new film meanders, not unlike some of the slower-paced Bond films.
A meandering pace—or any number of shortcomings—can be saved by good jokes, but Johnny English‘s humor lacks sharpness and nuance. It’s the sort of comedy that’s broad enough to play in as many foreign dubs as possible, and, indeed, it has become a worldwide hit. But, perhaps on the road to international success, any real verbal wit or inventive gags have been replaced by obvious isn’t-he-stupid jokes and pratfalls.
Of course, Atkinson, a gifted physical comedian, is an expert at pratfalls. There is a sequence in the middle of the film where English mixes up his truth serum and muscle relaxants, and Atkinson’s sublimely silly flopping and slurring had me laughing aloud. But everyone else functions as Atkinson’s straight cast; actors as weirdly diverse as John Malkovich (as a villainous Frenchman) and pop star Natalie Imbruglia (as a female agent) are given little to do.
For all this, the Johnny English character is rather charming, and occasionally the film rises to Atkinson’s level. At one point, there is even an echo of Woody Allen’s maxim about success: at one point, two villains debate the need to do away with English; one dismisses him as an unthreatening incompetent. The other disagrees. “He may be a fool,” he says, “but he’s a fool who keeps showing up.” For this and a few other stray moments, English’s desire to play the hero, to transcend his stereotypical Englishness, is, in Atkinson’s hands, sort of touching.