If M. Hulot could take a holiday, certainly Mr. Bean is entitled to do the same. Though both Jacques Tati and Rowan Atkinson are great physical clowns, however, it’s the Englishman who brings a real touch of humanity to the elaborate sight gags that equally mark their work, even though separated half a decade. And that makes “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” not only vastly superior to its 1997 predecessor “Bean,” which was frankly too stuffed with plot for its own good, but—given its sense of quiet and penchant for harmless slapstick—a breath of fresh air in today’s sea of raunchy, foul-mouthed sex comedies.
There isn’t much plot to “Mr. Bean’s Holiday,” which is more like a series of sketches stitched together, but there is a through-line. Bean wins a church raffle for a vacation on the Riviera. On the way he causes consternation for a lot of people. In particular he feels responsible for a young Russian boy, Stepan (Max Baldry), who gets separated from his father because of Bean’s ineptitude, and so he takes charge of the lad in order to reunite him with dad at Cannes, where the elder Duchevsky (Karel Roden), a film director, is to serve on the festival jury. Unfortunately, Bean loses his papers and money, which means the unlucky duo have to fend for themselves on the way. Bean also messes up the shooting of an elaborate commercial by self-esteemed director Carson Clay (Willem Dafoe), which brings him into contact with aspiring starlet Sabine (Emma de Caunes), who finds him charmingly odd. Eventually the trio of Bean, Stepan and Sabine make their way to Cannes, despite the fact that by then Bean is suspected of having kidnapped the boy. And when they get there, it’s Clay’s latest opus that’s showing—and Bean naturally disrupts the premiere in a way that has unintended consequences.
As with the scenarios of so many silent-movie comedies, which are certainly the models at work here, this doesn’t sound like much of a plot, and it isn’t. But it provides the opportunity for the rubber-bodied Atkinson to do his stuff; there are some excellent sight-gags, like the ones involving a roadside shed and, at the close, a perfectly-gauged stairway to the seashore. And some of them allow for the introduction of fine ancillary figures for him to interact with—most notably veteran Jean Rochefort as a restaurant maitre d’ who serves the unwitting Bean a seafood platter, giving Atkinson the chance not only to exhibit his facial malleability to an extraordinary degree but for his character to inflict a hilarious result on the poor woman who has the misfortune to be seated beside him. And a running gag about an attempt to reach Emil Duchevsky by phone makes for hilarious brief interjections, some of them very dark indeed.
But it’s the more persistent connections with other people that give this “Holiday” a human dimension that makes it rather touching as well as funny. Most significant is Bean’s relationship with Stepan, whom Baldry—amazingly enough—manages to bring off as likably spunky rather than irritating. (There’s a sequence in which the two perform for change at a farmer’s market that’s a gem.) The thread dealing with Sabine, played with a generalized amiability by De Caunes, isn’t as winning, but it’s still enjoyable. As so often happens, unfortunately, the shots taken at the movie business aren’t quite as sharp—Dafoe’s preening director isn’t as funny as he might have been, nor do the scenes shown from his pretentious film garner the laughs they should (they seem more characteristic of sixties cinema than today’s, and are just too obvious and repetitive). And the intervention by Bean during the screening doesn’t entirely work, either.
But happily the picture recoups in the end with that elaborate stairway gag and a musical beach finale that takes a pleasantly surrealistic route. They’re the final evidence that director Steve Bendelack knows what he’s doing: unlike the first “Bean” film directed by Mel Smith, which frankly looked an uncontrolled mess, this one is expertly choreographed and shot, the director’s smoothly efficient approach well matched by Baz Irvine’s fine cinematography, Tony Cranstoun’s crisp editing and Howard Goodall’s score, which—unlike those in so many comedies—doesn’t push too hard.
The result is a “Holiday” that’s much more pleasant a journey than most actual vacations.