One scoop Rowan Atkinson, one scoop bad movie

Saturday, 19 July 2003 — 9:53pm | Film, Full reviews

Rowan Atkinson’s performance as the title character of Johnny English is among his better work. The film itself is not.

There is no doubting that the former Mr. Bean is a gentleman’s Jim Carrey, a master of physical comedy, and it shows as he plays the role of a bumbling, incompetent secret agent. Atkinson is the primary draw of the film and its solitary heart and soul; true to form, he delivers fine comedy that acts as a magnet for laughter. He plays the role with a total lack of debonair suavity, and proves himself the perfect anti-Bond. His delivery of verbal humour is similarly commendable, and hearkens back to its Blackadder zenith.

Unfortunately, that is where Johnny English starts and ends. It is in effect a solo performance, or maybe not enough of one, as everything other than Atkinson’s comedic moments is completely forgettable. The screenwriting team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the pair who worked on the last two James Bond films, does well enough in constructing the occasional witty snippet of dialogue for Atkinson to deliver, typically relying heavily on well-executed dramatic irony; however, not as much can be said in the way of story. One does not expect a showcase of Atkinson’s talents to string an evenly-paced plot together, but low expectations do not excuse the paper-thin transitions from joke to joke, which often go on far too long. Whenever Johnny English is offscreen, the movie is a thundering bore. Even John Malkovich’s appearance as the uber-Frenchman Pascal Sauvage, over-the-top accent included, is a gag that gets very old very fast.

Most of the blame can be laid directly on director Peter Howitt, whose impressive curriculum vitae features such highlights as AntiTrust and Sliding Doors. What Johnny English lacks is a sense of style, an atmosphere of pulpish cool – elements critical to what it aspired to be. The movie almost never feels like a spy flick; we are only led to believe it is because we are told. In addition to being funny, a comedy movie – especially one of a spoofy nature – still carries the responsibility of being a movie. English is one of the many films that neglect this requirement, and does so much to its own discredit. There is very little that separates it from merely being television fare.

The moral of the story is that Atkinson alone is not enough to sustain an hour and a half on the big screen, let alone the ticket price. Actually, theoretically he is – but Johnny English is such a mishmash of clearly identifiable good parts (with him) and bad parts (without), you really couldn’t tell. English is enjoyable, but only in bursts, and it never comes close to demanding silver-screen presentation as a necessity. We learn nothing new about Atkinson as a performer, and there is far too much extraneous material that gets in his way. Until someone knows how to make use of him as the star of a feature film, his television work, with its thankful brevity and superior knack for timing, will suffice. He is an actor best described as silly and fun, but more often than not, this movie is silly and stupid.

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