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Anti-Beaners complain that in order to like comic Rowan Atkinson’s TV show, Mr. Bean, you must first be a fan of Rowan Atkinson’s comic character, Mr. Bean. These are the same people who insist it’s a matter of sober empirical fact that Dennis Quaid, Kevin Costner, and other aged, leathery specimens are sexyso naturally their movies are good.
I don’t follow the logic, but I do find Atkinson funny in nearly every capacitywhether guesting in someone else’s project, like Nicholas Roeg’s The Witches, or in one of his regular personae, the sly Black Adder or, yes, the mad little gray man Mr. Bean. Bean freely indulges in the kind of behavior most of us feel a little uncomfortable considering even in complete privacy. He isn’t one of those great big anarchic children so beloved in child-worshiping Western culture, just a terribly selfish and self-conscious social fool with his sense of extroversion and restraint turned inside-out. Atkinson and Robin Driscoll’s book Mr. Bean’s Diary is a heartbreaking, rather off-puttingly intimate look at a year in Bean’s bizarre but boring life. Running gags, insane inventions, and predicaments thread through the months, but there are also frequent jolts on the order of “Challenge Andy to duel,” “I HATE SALAD,” and a Polaroid of “The Grocer (Caught Unawares).”
Bean, the major motion picture, makes the expected sentimental errors such films do when they upgrade a popular character, starting with inflating his purpose and presence so that he’s fighting a battle any ordinary man would lose. Bean is a security guard at a very tony British museum, where for reasons too specious to detail the board decides to fob him off on a splashy American museum as an art expert of rarefied degree. The Grierson Gallery in Los Angeles is about to purchase a great painting, and Bean is shipped westward to expound on the piece for the international press.
Anyone equally unqualifiedwhich is to say anyonewould look amusingly out of his depth in this situation, and it’s particularly all wrong for Bean, since his humor is so disastrously small-scale. What’s funny about Bean isn’t that he’s no international art expert; it’s that his underwear foils him, he spies on his neighbors, and he loses his watchand then buries his headin a turkey’s behind (a favorite Bean bit reprised here). The movie’s better when it stops treating Bean like the center of the universe and lets him act out against it, as when he lords his unexpected first-class ticket over the yobbos in coach.
Everything in the movie conspires to allow Bean to wreak maximum havoc, so before he’s even off the plane (and so impressed with gutsy America that he gets detained after pretending to be carrying a gun), Grierson curator David Langley (Peter MacNicol) has already had the bright idea of asking his illustrious guest to stay at his house for two weeks. David’s wife (Pamela Reed) needs only to get one look at Bean as he sits on her couch, staring almost worshipfully at a huge bowl of (the sponsor’s) candy, before she starts packing her bags, but needy, sentimental David thinks he can make the arrangement work.
Pitting paranoid, prickly Bean against a weak, ineffectual Californian is an exercise bound to fail, and much of Bean is polished too highthere’s serious, soaring music throughout. We shouldn’t be asked to sympathize with David’s soft-man woes but with the more ambiguous spectacle of Bean striving to lead his nice, solitary, mad little life. But Bean is funny when he gets an elaborate idea and carries it to its natural extreme; his parting gifts to the Langley family are a scream. And everything involving the pompous-hipster L.A. art world is hilarious, from the design of the seaside museum to the special exhibition-related gift-shop fare, including a poster of a sexy blonde in a white cap sprawled on a chair. “It’s Whistler’s sister,” explains the marketing guy.
The movie finishes its task about 70 minutes in on a swell feel-good noteafter Bean has destroyed and restored a masterpiece and made what turns out to be a very nice speech to the press on the occasion of the arrival of the painting’s hotshot buyer (Burt Reynolds in a tiny, showy role). So the writers (Driscoll and Richard Curtis) tack on a frenetic hospital sequence that, in order to gather the principals, necessitates hurting some of them quite badly. It’s a miscalculation that doesn’t pay off, since Bean makes his usual mess-of-things-that-fixes-everythingfine in a fictional art museum, where he’s pretending to ruin a painting; not so funny when he’s reaching boldly into a person’s abdominal incision to retrieve more of that frequently plugged candy. And if those art guys know so much, why do they keep calling it Whistler’s Mother?
SwitchBack is an exhausting experience. Before I got tired of writing them down, I’d recorded such lines as, “It looks like we’ve got company” (local sheriff when the feds are called in), “You made a big mistake comin’ in here” (psycho redneck barflies to pleasant young hitchhiker), and the frequently repeated “Watch me” (tight-lipped hero whose next action is challenged with the disbelief of lesser men). There might have been a couple of “You can’t go in there”s (secretary of by-the-book-boss to rogue hero) and “I done a little bit-a everything” (mysterious road-tripper to anyone who’ll listen), but the lights go down, the dialogue murmurs comfortingly, the nuclear “butter flavor” has a soporific effect…
SwitchBack doesn’t stink; it’s just unnecessary, it goes on forever, and no one in it can act except Danny Glover. It’s not just an amalgam of other thrillers, it’s an amalgam of other recent thrillers, so if you’ve been within spitting distance of Playing God, Ransom, or Kiss the Girls you’ve already enjoyed at least one major aspect of this serial killer vs. rogue G-man endgame. Although, perhaps the scene in which a babe doctor on the bum gives roadside service to a rube with makeshift rube assistance will become a trend; these pin-up MacGyvers are fun to watch in action. They’re not exactly heroesmore like extremely cute handymen.
Jared Leto plays the ex-doctor in question, Glover the weird guy in the art car who picks him up for a winter ride across the Southwest the purpose of which isn’t clear for almost half the film. Intercut with their bonding journey is a Texan sheriff’s struggle to solve an unpleasant double murder in the middle of a nasty re-election campaign. The movie opens with a stealthy kidnapping-murder sequence in which a baby sitter is knifed and a kid stolen (it includes the requisite cat-scare), the significance of which never becomes clear, even when it’s explained. Quaid doesn’t show up for hours, and when he does, it appears that the actor’s people just sent in a butter sculpture of the guy while he went off to cash the check.
Quaid’s Special Agent Frank LaCrosse (does he know Detective/Doctor Alex Cross from Kiss the Girls, or are they actually the same person?) is officially barred from investigating this case, but since the serial killer took his son, he’s been flouting authority and refusing to move his lips when he speaks. He’s so smart that when the whole Amarillo police force finds an important stolen vehicle, it takes the Fed guy to notice a billfold that’s just sitting on the floorwith an ID in it! As for the body in the back, well, you couldn’t trust those peckerwoods to find their own dicks if you gave them a dowsing rod and a pack of bloodhounds.
But SwitchBack gets better as you begin to wonder, not necessarily out of admiration, what the hell is going on and how writer-director Jeb Stuart is going to pull it all together. The script talent behind Die Hard and The Fugitive dug up this old screenplay and used his newfound Hollywood clout to get it to the screen; the clichés must have seemed like pure genre adrenaline when he wrote them, although a dedicated man would have tidied them up. Still, it ends up pretty enjoyable, with novel thrills, rich, light-saturated interiors, and gorgeous frozen vistas against which Leto looks very pretty.CP