Thursday, May 17, 2012

Idiot savant or idiot idiot?

This is not a special effect.
Johnny English Reborn (2011) is a perfectly agreeable, if anachronistic slapstick Bond parody.  Given that it is now in home video, if you choose to watch it, it will be merely a matter of adding it to your Netflix queue or dropping a buck at Redbox, and not $28 at the nearby MegaPlex 3000, there is no reason for you not to do so, unless you don't care for laughter or entertainment.

But it IS anachronistic.  How can we keep kidding Bond movies 40 years after the fact?  They are not only no more or less funny than they always were, but Mike Myers has clubbed that particular dead horse beyond recognition, with diminishing returns.  (Yes, I know the leaping-off place is Michael Caine's Harry Palmer character, but believe me, the Myers films are kidding Bond not Palmer.)  And that's not to mention Inspector Clouseau, Maxwell Smart or the hero of the OSS 117 films played by Jean Dujardain.  (We will not discuss Jack E. Leonard as The Fat Spy.)  The woods are full of inept spies.

So decisions must be made.  Clouseau is a supremely confident idiot who sales through adversity, triumphing by bizarre accident.  In the meantime, his ineptitude causes social embarassment for himself and physical harm to others, but rarely harm to himself.  He never becomes self-aware, and none of his gambits work the way he plans for them.  Same for Maxwell Smart, who alternates confidence and sheepish humility for Clouseau's oblivious arrogance.  Dujardin is physically capable--he can even intentionally kill, but he has wandered in from another era, and it is his sexism, racism and thick-witted intransigience that makes the OSS films funny.  The Austin Powers are more cultural send-ups.  Powers is also sexist, but the character's childlike enthusiasm excuses his worst behavior.  But Powers is not inept, just a bit culturally clueless and capable of catching up fast.

But Rowan Atkinson, perhaps the greatest combination of comic gifts -- body, face, voice and writing -- combined in a single person of any person alive, can not get Johnny English to settle on a single joke.  Bring him into a room with dangerous and/or breakable things, and they will go zooming and crashing around, causing financial and physical mayhem.  But minutes later, he can outwit and outfight an opponent using sly and clever tricks and even execute Bond-style witticisms--not vulgar burlesques of them, but actual wisecracks a la mode.  Sometimes he understands the mission, sometimes he doesn't and there is no way of predicting it.

Buster Keaton flirted with this problem. His character was frequently referred to by others as a dimwit or a dunderhead, but he had this fabulous intuitive understanding of the natural universe. Perhaps the movie Buster (not the real man) was the first Asperger's comedian, brilliant within his area of expertise, but lacking the ability to read other human beings, or master their strange social customs.  Somehow he made it all hang together.

Jerry Lewis does not and does not seem to be aware there is a problem.  His basic character has been described as a parody of a juvenile idiot.  But if it is necessary to become brilliant to pull off a momentary gag, Lewis will do it, because nothing is important to him as the gag of the moment, and if it distorts the character or the story, Lewis doesn't care.  His movies have Attention Deficit Disorder, which in turn, weakens the gags, since they are rooted in nothing.  For those of you, who get the reference, Jerry Lewis was the Larry Semon of the 1960s.

Atkinson has no such problem with Mr. Bean.  Mr. Bean is inexplicable, but consistent.  He is a child, but, like Harpo Marx, a child who has been around a little bit and seen some things.  But Johnny English, funny as it is, is always in danger of turning into Thirty-One Gags In Search Of A Movie.
One incidental note -- when did the English decide Gillian Anderson was English?  She's from Chicago, and her English accet is only passable, especially in comparison with a Gwyneth Paltrow or a Jennifer Ehle.  But she's done two Dickens mini-series and now this picture.  There have to be some working actresses in Great Britain between 35 and 55, surely.  Anderson isn't convincing to me as a Yank--what could she sound like to a Brit? 

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