Nobody can deliver a line like Rowan Atkinson. A natural stammerer who overcompensates with enunciation, the 67-year-old actor is held in awe by fellow comedians for the way he repeatedly rehearses a line, meticulously sharpening syllables while he seeks the most hilarious inflection points of a sentence, eventually letting it rip with the precision of a well-paid assassin. He can kill with a line — be it a verbose, well-crafted bit of wordplay, or merely the name ‘Bob.’
This is best demonstrated in Blackadder, one of the finest comedies in all of television, where Atkinson plays an eternally sarcastic underling through various stages of British history. His insults are poetry. (He refers to the first ever English dictionary as “the most pointless book since ‘How To Learn French’ was translated into French.”)
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It is therefore ironic that this master of dialogue is primarily known to audiences around the world as a (mostly) silent figure: the rubber-faced goof Mr Bean, who came to us with 1990 TV series Mr Bean (available on Amazon Prime), an animated series and a couple of movies. Bean, who grunts and gurgles instead of speaking, is a harbinger of chaos in the vein of Monsieur Hulot (but more sadistic), or Buster Keaton (but less geometrically elegant). He’s an exasperating child trapped in a man’s body, forever out of place.
Atkinson is a sensational master of physical comedy, and I remain enthalled by one of the earliest sketches. Mr Bean, on a beach, is about to change into his swimming trunks, when he spots a man next to him. He proceeds to first wear his trunks over his trousers, then goes through extreme — and visibly uncomfortable — contortions to pull his trousers off from under the swimming costume. Triumphant at last (albeit catastrophically chafed) he then discovers the potential onlooker was blind all along.
Atkinson, last seen taking a dramatic detour by playing detective Jules Maigret in a 2016 adaptation of the Georges Simenon books, is firmly back in face-pulling territory with Man Vs Bee (Netflix). The story of a mild-mannered man called Trevor Bingley hired to housesit a millionaire’s estate, the series pits Atkinson against a formidable bee, one who causes him to destroy the home he’s meant to mind. (Knowing this eventuality does not, however, hurt the enjoyment of it. It is clear, for instance, when we see a great big Mondrian hanging behind Atkinson, that he will somehow cause it irreparable harm, but the moment when a hammer ricochets off glass to rip through the painting is still priceless.)
It is the most modest of premises with the most modest of running times. The first episode is 20 minutes, the rest are about 11 minutes apiece, making it a grand total of a feature-film, yet this bite-sized format feels oddly suited to something this straightforward. It feels less like watching a film and more like watching Looney Tunes episodes, which is as it should be.
This petite-episode format lowers the barrier to entry for the viewer, and at a time when streaming services are releasing far too many movies directly to digital platforms, it might make sense for Netflix and the gang to experiment more with these kinds of formats in order to attract casual viewers to less flashy fare.
Man Vs Bee is basically Home Alone with a bee instead of burglars. I’m reminded of Gore Verbinski’s 1997 film Mouse Hunt where two brothers tear down a country mansion to expunge a rodent, a film where Nathan Lane was brilliant and which would have worked better if not for the Wile E Coyote cartoonishness of the gags. Atkinson approaches the overtly modern conveniences of this obscenely affluent house much like Peter Sellers did as Hrundi V Bakshi in Blake Edwards’ immortal classic The Party. Birdie Num Num. He keeps his character more relatable. Who among us has never been stymied by a gesture-controlled faucet?
Bingley, however, isn’t as much of an everyman. We are informed that he felt “attacked” by a shredder at his last job, and as the film progresses — and he gets increasingly manic — Bingley becomes almost gleeful when sawing through the side of a gorgeous Jaguar E-Type (possibly one from Atkinson’s own collection.) Yet with this madness mostly taking place within one house, it does evoke our own silly lockdown obsessions, the fixations born out of confinement. All through the Atkinson lens. The very bearable likeness of Bean.
Man Vs Bee is a one-man show. Some of Atkinson’s finest work is performed solo — go to YouTube and look up his early sketch ‘Welcome To Hell,’ for instance — but this is less malevolent. Affectionate, even. It is also significantly less funny, yet I admire the fact that it exists. There is something to be said for the best comedian of his age gamely embracing a silly premise and attacking an imaginary bee like a cat chasing a laser pointer. A bearable likeness of Bean.
Streaming tip of the week:
A 39-year-old Hrishikesh Mukherjee comedy is back in the news. Kissi Se Na Kehna (Amazon Prime) is a mild comedy, an innocent clip of which got activist and fact-checker Mohammed Zubair arrested. The film remains easily available.
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Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.