Tired of rainy London, squirmy-faced Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson) is beside himself when he wins a vacation to the South of France. Even “better,” the church that has put on the raffle to fix a leaky roof includes a new Sony digital video camera. This means that Bean will not only have adventures, but he will also record them — in hectic, unedited close-up shots. And you, lucky you, will behold all of it.
Bean’s appeal has long been something of a mystery. If Atkinson’s Black Adder days were full of spunk and acerbic wit, his turn to the near-mute social calamity at the center of 1997’s Bean seemed a calculated bid for a broader viewership. Bean gestured backwards, toward a simpler and subtler aesthetic, comedy premised on trusting viewers to follow nuance and appreciate visual detail. And the film was a hit — eventually earning over $45 million in the U.S. alone — which led to overexposure and unthinking follow-ups, including an animated Mr. Bean and a starring role for Atkinson in Johnny English. This was not a hit. Atkinson retreated to supporting roles, and Bean seemed a done deal.
If only. Back with even less to say than before (he mostly gurgles and grunts, occasionally managing a guttural word or two), Bean lurches toward his much-anticipated beach vacation with all the refinement of a train wreck. Indeed, he starts off on a train, arriving in Paris with just enough time to sightsee and grab a bite, before he will be riding in style to Cannes. Both of these ostensible time-killing activities, however, turn into mini-disasters, owing to Bean’s lack of French. When a cab takes him to a wrong destination, he has to find his way back to where he wants to be (demonstrating the sort of self-absorbed determination that make Bean Bean), eventually landing in an elegant restaurant. Unable to read the menu, he takes the Maitre d’s (Jean Rochefort) suggestion, a seafood platter.
Ewwy ewwy: Bean slurps oysters and crunches langoustines, all the while taping himself in close-up. And when even he is repulsed by the oysters, sliding them into his napkin while he pretends to be pleased for the broadly smiling Maitre d’, Bean eventually must find a hiding spot for the castoffs. Voila! The lady at the next table has left her conveniently large purse open, which means an imminent punch line in her shriek of horror when she touches the slimy mess.
By that time, Bean is on is way, as he remains oblivious to any sort of havoc he leaves in his wake. If his subsequent adventures are again premised on his incessant self-absorption, the new film makes the case that even so, he can be caring, even affectionate. The demonstration begins when Bean meets a boy, Stepan (Max Baldry), alone on the train because his father, film director Emil (Karel Roden), missed the train. Oh by the way, Bean was critical in dad’s deal, and Stepan resents it. Bean’s efforts to amuse the sad child — he makes faces, again — earns the sort of response the rest of us can only imagine giving him: Stepan slaps him, hard, across the face. Bean looks briefly stunned: could it be that he’s not as adorable as he thinks?
The film drops the question immediately, however: self-awareness is not Bean’s strong suit. And so he and Stepan are soon bonded (and not because the boy is a nifty mimic who annoys Bean by copying everything he does, for an instant turning back on the clown his own infuriating tics). The rudimentary emotional dimensions of their man-child/child friendship are familiar, and the film doesn’t dwell on them. Instead, it complicates their connection in background TV news reports that bean has kidnapped Stepan, and then separates them. Bean’s next adventure observes in a basic way the artifice of filmmaking, and especially, the links between art and commodity, belief and perception.
As he does everything, Bean stumbles on this eventuality by accident, literally wandering onto a set. Here he sees the delightful Sabine (Emma de Caunes), shooting a commercial for yogurt under the direction of American egotist Carson Clay (Willem Dafoe). Suddenly surrounded by pretense — WWII tanks, soldiers in Nazi uniforms, and the charming café waitress played by Sabine — Bean is utterly out of place, destroying the shot. Carson erupts (“Some of us are trying to make a work of art!”), sends the intruding Bean to wardrobe (ever ignorant, he delights in goose-stepping in a Nazi uniform), and proceeds to conjure his art. This even as you’ve become acutely aware of the utter sham and self-regard of his “process.”
No surprise, Bean is rather slower on the uptake, though he does manage to punish the odious filmmaker, now and later. By chance, he catches a ride to Cannes with Sabine, they reconnect with Stepan, and soon the action has shifted from the road to Cannes per se, just in time for the Film Festival. Here they find Stepan’s father on jury duty (attending despite the seeming fact that his son has been kidnapped) and Carson on display — again. His painfully pretentious film — which he has directed, written, produced, edited, and starred in — literally puts the audience to sleep. “What is life,” he drones in voiceover, “but a teardrop in the eye of infinity?” the film persists with close-ups of the artist, supposedly pondering a lost love, but mostly pondering himself: “What use is a cop with a broken heart?”, he asks over a slow motion shot of Carson as a detective, running. “Without you, I am nothing nothing nothing nothing,” all punctuated by shots of dozing viewers.
Carson insists, “This film is for all of us who hunger for truth.” Though Mr. Bean’s Holiday presses for comedy and pleasure as their own forms of truth, it makes a very weak case. Bean and Carson are less different than they are the same, both self-centered and naïve, sad and lonely. Worse, Bean’s movie isn’t even as funny as Carson’s.