It may spin your head a bit to know that the British actor who made the most money last year was not Kenneth Branagh or Anthony Hopkins, but, at more than 11 million pounds sterling, Rowan Atkinson. Who? you think, and then it comes back: ah, that strange little Bean fellow, with the movie that was supposed to be the second coming of Pee-wee Herman but that ended up more like the return of Yahoo Serious.
Granted, that’s the U.S.-centric view. Bean, the movie, may have run out of steam at $45 million in theaters here, but it was one of the year’s biggest hits in just about every other country, breaking the $100 million barrier before its American debut last October. What did the rest of the planet know that we didn’t? That in the right circumstances, Atkinson can be cramp-inducingly funny. Unfortunately, the only evidence most Americans had to go on was Bean the movie, which is roughly to this comedian’s British television work what George Lazenby is to Sean Connery.
Now that Bean is on video, it takes its proper place as the odd ambitious misstep in an otherwise inspired career. Atkinson’s work falls into three categories, all well represented on tape. Least typically, there are the comic-support roles in mainstream movies: the vow-mangling priest in Four Weddings and a Funeral, a bureaucratic nerd in Never Say Never Again, and — best of all — an obnoxiously egotistical stage comedian named Ron Anderson, whose much-abused second banana is The Tall Guy, played by Jeff Goldblum during his post-Fly, pre-Lost World wanderings. (Written by Richard Curtis and directed by Mel Smith — both Atkinson confederates from the early days who reteamed to make Bean the movie — this splendid 1989 riot also features a young, randy Emma Thompson and a demented musical production of The Elephant Man. Go rent it this instant.)
Atkinson’s first fame in Britain came in 1979 with the sketch-revue series Not the Nine O’Clock News but really took off once he stepped into situation comedy. The surreal, acutely witty, and above all verbal ”Black Adder” series, episodes of which are available on tape from Fox, ran on the BBC from 1983 to 1989 and allowed the actor to play a Machiavellian schemer and his descendants through various epochs of English history. More recently, Atkinson starred in the police-precinct sitcom The Thin Blue Line (two new tapes with two episodes each will be released here March 31). It’s far more conventional than ”The Black Adder” — drop the Scotland Yard references and it could pass unnoticed on ABC — but Atkinson makes his character, Inspector Raymond Fowler, a complexly sympathetic prig.
Also hitting video this month is a repriced Rowan Atkinson Live, a 1992 HBO stand-up special in which all the comedian’s sides merrily collide. You can see his debt to Monty Python in the ”dead student” sketch, and even an echo of Benny Hill in the sermon by a sexually, er, gratified priest. But it’s in the sketch where Atkinson plays Mr. Bean that his true gift emerges: Quite simply, he’s one of the finest silent comedians alive.
I mean that in the classic, Mack Sennett sense. Put this infantile little prat in a room with a stock situation — standing in line, moving furniture, taking an exam — and startlingly pure comedy results. Sometimes startlingly vulgar, too; Atkinson can build a towering yet precise edifice of snot gags. Imagine Jacques Tati crossed with Python’s Upper-Class Twit, and it still doesn’t convey the unsentimental invention with which Atkinson plays in the fields of the id. The BBC Mr. Bean shows are available in various configurations, but you at least owe it to yourself to check out The Best Bits of Mr. Bean, if only to see how he handles meeting the Queen (it involves a balky zipper).
Bean, the major motion picture, shows what happens when you take this character out of his hermetic little skit world. It’s not pretty. There’s a plot (art gallery sends Bean to America along with Whistler’s Mother; destruction ensues); there are too-large supporting roles (Peter MacNicol and Pamela Reed as Bean’s hapless curator host and hostess); there’s even, God help us, pathos. I understand the need to enlarge the Bean persona, but did they really have to soften his head in the bargain?
Even the rhythms of a feature film don’t serve Bean well: Atkinson reprises a classic head-stuck-in-the-turkey routine from the BBC series, but the scene’s thrown off by its empathy for MacNicol’s character. In an oddly British way, the movie seems to be apologizing for its own hero. Thanks, but I’d rather see Bean back in his tiny, crass Buster Keaton landscape. Or if you must blow him up to movie proportions, sic him against a similarly unrealistic, equally petulant character. Like Godzilla. And put your money on the little guy. Bean: C- Tall: B+ Line: B- Live: B Bits: A-
Bean 1997 POLYGRAM $106.99 RATED PG-13
The Tall Guy 1989 COLUMBIA TRISTAR $19.95 RATED R
The Thin Blue Line 1997 POLYGRAM $19.95 UNRATED
Rowan Atkinson Live 1997 POLYGRAM $19.95 UNRATED
The Best Bits of Mr. Bean 1997 POLYGRAM $14.95 AS OF MARCH 31 UNRATED