Tag Archives: 6/20

Van Helsing

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Famous monster-hunter Gabriel Van Helsing is dispatched to Transylvania to rid the world of Count Dracula, in order to save the world from his Frankenstein-inspired creations, and the descendants of a noble family from a life in Hell. However, one of the descendants has issues of his own, leaving Van Helsing, aided only by callow friar Carl, to look after the beautiful Princess Anna.

You can almost see the scene. An office in Los Angeles, key movie ingredients pasted on the wall: ‘opening/backstory,’ ‘lead characters,’ action sequence 2,’ ‘love interest,’ ‘sidekick’ and so on. From a large bucket, passages torn from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, together with leftover bits of Indiana Jones scripts, are drawn out at random and stuck to the wall. Over an hour or two, a sort of story – a disconnected and nonsensical story, but a story all the same – begins to appear, and an executive in a suit says ‘Hey guys! I think we’ve got a movie here!’

It’s tempting to think that Sommers’ film, a lumbering monster stitched together from the corpses of much better movies, was brought to life in this way, but the credits indicate that Van Helsing was written by Sommers alone, so presumably it is his copies of 19th century novels that are mutilated or at least heavily annotated. The plot is so complicated as to make further explanation of it very wearisome, but essentially has Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) shacked up with Victor Frankenstein as part of the Count’s devious plot to create an army of minions (is the ‘biting people’ method too slow? We’re not told); when Frankenstein refuses to assist, he is killed but the monster escapes, taking with him the key to creating life.

Meanwhile, the all-action amnesiac Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is summoned to the Vatican after slaying Mr Hyde at Notre Dame (oh yes!) and given a new assignment, to protect the last descendants of the Valerious family, Velkan and Anna. He is given Carl (David Wenham), a naive friar who happens to be a 19th Century Q-like gadgets expert, as company on his journey to darkest Transylvania.

Once arrived, Van Helsing, broad and imposing in his frock coat and hat, is immediately called into action to fend off Dracula’s brides with his semi-automatic crossbow, bringing him into the company of lovely Princess Anna (Kate Beckinsale); they are unable to rescue Velkan, who has become a part-time werewolf in Dracula’s service, but they do stumble upon Frankenstein’s monster.

When Anna herself is captured, a plan to get her back without trading her for the monster goes wrong – and Van Helsing himself is bitten by the werewolf – but luckily Dracula has a cure, so the rescued Anna, Carl and Van Helsing (now with super strength and agility) can mount an assault on Dracula’s secret lair, free the monster and kill the Count, thereby neutralising the thousands of vampire bat-things he has just brought to life and setting lots of demonic oompa-loompas on fire in the process.

If all that sounds complicated, it is, and whilst watching the film is not a particularly confusing experience, it is not a particularly fun one either. Van Helsing, the bit-part vampire-hunter from Dracula, does not make a natural hero, and lumbering him with amnesia, a significant past, gadgets like circular saws and lycanthropy is really too much, especially when Jackman is clearly thinking only of his paycheque.

It’s hard to blame him, though, when he’s asked to believe in a story that throws in every conceivable horror cliché bar the Mummy (that being Sommers’ big franchise and reserved to Brendan Fraser, presumably) and fails to reconcile them into a satisfactory whole. Carl is a typically annoying sidekick and Beckinsale, though undeniably comely in her corset and tight trousers, fails to generate much chemistry as a barely-explored love interest. In this company Roxburgh appears to be overacting like mad, and for all his bluster is actually defeated fairly easily in an unsatisfying CGI-dominated climax. In fact, CGI is overused throughout, the emphasis in action sequences taken off stuntwork and placed on computer modelling, resulting in the characters jumping and moving about in the obviously fake, jerky style that marred Spider-Man.

You can see the intention behind Van Helsing, a destroyer of evil who is morally ambiguous himself, like Hellboy or Constantine. However, Jackman is never bothered enough about the role to make us feel anything for him, and in several moments of execution – when he bends some metal bars apart, the bars move before he exerts any pressure on them – the film shows a real lack of attention to detail that matches the careless way the plot throws ideas around. Hokum can be really entertaining, but by and large this is badly-made hokum without any convictions to have courage in. Almost any horror film which gives its sole attention to Dracula, werewolves or Frankenstein is preferable to this ghastly goulash.

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Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: When Elle Woods discovers that her dog Bruiser’s mother is a captive of V.E.R.S.A.C.E. – not the fashion label but an animal research lab – she sacrifices her lucrative lawyer’s job (and puts her dream wedding on hold) to go to Washington, in an attempt to put a halt to animal testing. Initially, Congress is unreceptive to her perky charms, but Ms Woods has a knack of finding useful friends in a crisis.

Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is a success story. She’s a popular lawyer with prospects of promotion in a Boston law firm, with a wedding – at Fenway Park, no less – to her beloved Emmett (Luke Wilson) on the cards. However, when she draws up the wedding list there are no guests for her even more beloved Chihuahua Bruiser (Moondoggie(!)); and the results of a private eye’s digging horrify her when she discovers that Bruiser’s mom is owned by a research laboratory, who won’t give her up.

Elle takes up the case but her law firm are less than sympathetic, replacing the promotion with the sack; but ever-resourceful, she calls on a favour with sorority sister, Congresswoman Victoria Rudd (Sally Field), to join her staff in Washington. Elle’s target is no less than to introduce Bruiser’s Bill, legislation that would put a stop to animal testing, but her bubbly, overwhelmingly pink approach to life comes against a brick wall in the form of Rudd’s by-the-book Chief of Staff Grace (Regina King).

Deflated by her lack of progress, Elle is buoyed by the friendship and advice of doorman Sid Post (Bob Newhart), who walks dogs and provides leads (sorry) to influential people in Washington, including Congresswoman Libby Hauser (Dana Ivey), who wears a Delta Nu ring; and Congressman Stanford Marks (Bruce McGill), who owns a rottweiler who prefers the company of male dogs such as Bruiser. With these new friends on board Elle looks set to make progress, but under pressure to make deals (and fighting for her own survival) Victoria withdraws her support, effectively killing the bill at the Committee stage. However, if Elle can get the signatures of 218 members, the bill can be directly heard in Congress; and her Delta Nu connections, plus Paulette’s tonsorial skills, all play their part in rocking the vote.

Legally Blonde – recapped under the opening credits for the memory deficient – was undoubtedly a confection, a spun sugar film with little but the brightness of Reese Witherspoon to give it any weight at all; so it’s a real shame that instead of continuing Elle’s learning process, the sequel has her regressing into her former state of effervescent ignorance to make her way in Washington. This wouldn’t be a problem if she had fun things to do, but by and large Elle’s days in Washington are less than exciting, filled as they are with the tiresome business of Washington politics, snap cups, meetings in hairdressers, chance meetings in the park and so on.

The reason for this is that the story is so weak, promoting a gimmick from the first film (ie. Bruiser) to the driving force behind Elle’s actions. And it just doesn’t work. Not only is Elle sillier (in a negative sense) than she ever was in the first film, but she, her friends, and the people she meets act in bizarre, entirely unbelievable ways to make sure Bruiser’s Bill makes progress: Libby Hauser turns from frumpy matron to giddy schoolgirl at the sight of a ring, while Stanford Marks’ hardline Republican is turned into an emotional wreck by the mere thought of his homosexual dog.

Newhart’s Sid is the cheapest of know-all devices (he’s been doorman/dog walker for thirty years, so is an expert on political manoeuvres and a Deep Throat to boot). And the idea that Elle’s friends Margot and Serena, heading a pack of cheerleading interns, would send Congressmen and Women fighting to sign the petition is simply ludicrous – the scene is toe-curlingly embarrassing. Moreover, when the film limply winds up with Elle’s winsome speech about ‘speaking up’, the animal rights agenda takes a back seat; and despite the accolade from the American Humane Association, what has Legally Blonde 2 actually done for the animal testing debate? Still going on, is it? Thought so. You could argue that the vacuous nature of the movie actually harms the issue (keeping dogs in handbags is good for them?), but Legally Blonde 2 isn’t substantial enough for anyone to take it seriously.

For all that – and the fact that Emmett is as much a non-character as ever, wedding or no wedding – and the fact that Jennifer Coolidge’s return as Paulette is crowd-pleasing nonsense – there are very occasional glimpses of a film which isn‘t terrible. Even if she has become stupid again, Witherspoon invests Elle with her usual likeability, and Newhart is always fabulous (I’ve loved him ever since The Rescuers). Also, Mary Lynn Rajskub wrings every ounce of comedy out of her small role as staffer Reena.

But the highlights (insert your own hairstyling pun here) are all too brief in a film that feels precisely like the rushed cash-in it is. That the original was turned into a musical is a bit surprising; that there’s a straight-to-video extension of the franchise, Legally Blondes, beggars belief. Do yourself a favour and stick to the original – or why not watch something a bit more taxing, like Miss Congeniality?!

Hulk

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Accidentally absorbing a massive dose of radiation in a laboratory experiment, Bruce Banner finds that his rage is released his rage in huge, green form. Can he keep a lid on his temper and stay out of the clutches of both the military and the scruffy janitor who appears to know a lot about him?

As I saw this film before Ed Norton’s stab at being The Incredible Hulk, I only had memories of the TV series to compare with Ang Lee’s excursion into the popular and lucrative genre of comic-book adaptation. Thankfully, they no longer have to paint Lou Ferrigno green to portray the green-eyed monster, but is it all change for the good?

In a word: no. The long and the short of it is, not enough happens, and what does happen takes a long time. Although a lot of back story information is imparted in the first ten minutes, detailing the genetic experimentation that David Banner inflicted on himself and passed on to his son Bruce, a quarter of the film has gone by before Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) suffers the irradiation that makes his transformation possible. This is not presented particularly dramatically, and it’s a further ten minutes before the Hulk is fully unleashed. Until then, a plethora of green things and snatched glimpses are all that remind you what the film is supposed to be about.

The scenes filling the gaps between action sequences are unlikely to decrease your impatience, either. There’s a lot of jargon-infested lab talk about molecular science and the introduction of other protagonists: Josh Lucas as Talbot, the blonde, corporate baddie and wild-haired Nick Nolte as the aged David Banner. Also, there’s a massive amount of Jennifer Connelly as Banner’s ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross. Whilst I wouldn’t ordinarily complain about this, Betty is asked to carry the plot forward and, as the civilising influence on the Hulk, bear most of the film’s emotional weight too. Frankly, she is not interesting enough to justify all the screen time, regardless of the fact that she’s also the daughter of the army General at the centre of events, played gruffly by Sam Elliot. I should also mention that crucially, Bana doesn’t do cross all that well: the leading man conveys all the emotional distance that his character is accused of, and Nolte’s overwrought essence-of-King-Lear stylings bring the Australian’s relative blandness into sharp relief.

Although films that are all crash-bang-wallop can easily get tiresome, viewers of comic-book movies have a right to expect a decent action quotient. In Hulk, there are essentially only three action set-pieces: firstly, a fight with the Hulk battling his father’s mutant dogs; secondly, the extended escape from a desert military base ending on the streets of San Francisco; and finally, the climactic fight between the Hulk and his father, now with the ability to absorb materials he comes into contact with, including electricity and water. The first and third of these sequences rely heavily on CGI, and it is a major criticism of the film that whilst the Hulk (and his opponents) look fine in and of themselves, they fail to realistically interact with the real world items around them. The climactic fight is a confusing, almost abstract jumble of images and a less than thrilling experience.

The escape from the army base, whilst being the high point of the film, makes heavy use of another problem with the film. No doubt with the best of intentions, Hulk constantly uses comic strip-style split-screens, pans and wipes; these are not only distracting but serve no purpose whatsoever – how is a shot of a helicopter improved by seeing it from three angles at once? This is a bold move, but it doesn’t work at all. Lee has shown in many other films, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain to name but three, that he has a great eye for period detail and how to film it. Here, an attempt to reflect the source material interferes with the purpose of the film: telling the story.

Then again, he wasn’t given much of a story to work with. Unlike the dynamic and balanced 2008 film, Hulk is unsatisfying, misconceived, with poorly paced plotting and a tedious script, sadly lacking in excitement or humour, except of course for Bana’s glue-on beard in the epilogue. It’s a shame, because there is a ton of potential here: but this Hulk is far from incredible.

Knocked Up

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: TV producer Alison Scott celebrates promotion to an on-screen role by having a night out with married sister Debbie, and enjoys a drunken one-night stand with stunned stoner Ben Stone. Eight weeks later, Alison is startled to discover she’s pregnant, and horrified to discover just how unprepared a father Ben is. How can he be expected to look after a child when he can barely look after himself?

Alison Scott and Ben Stone (Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen) could hardly inhabit more different worlds: she lives in a nice house with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her family and looks after Ryan Seacrest on E! Television; he lives in semi-squalor with his dope-smoking mates, half-assedly assembling a website which informs users where and when they can find their favourite actresses naked. When Alison gets promoted to a presenting slot, she and Debbie celebrate with a night on the town and – aided by a ton of booze – she picks up Ben, who discards his troublesome condom when push comes to shove.

The next morning, she learns exactly what a slob Ben is and scarpers, only to find out two months later that she is expecting. Alison reluctantly breaks the news to Ben who promises to do right by her, but as she swells – keeping the news from her employers for as long as possible – things do not go well: rather than bonding with Alison, Ben buddies up with Debbie’s henpecked husband Pete (Paul Rudd); and when Pete’s chucked out for secretly doing his own thing, they head off to Vegas to make their own entertainment. With Ben refusing to give up his buds or even his bong, relations are strained wider than Heigl’s stomach; it seems incredibly unlikely that the family Stone is going to be particularly happy.

Apatow’s directorial follow-up to The 40 Year-Old Virgin is a problematic movie in many respects. I’ll come to the other problems later, but here’s the biggie: I don’t buy it. Even allowing for juvenile fantasy scenarios that power stuff like The Girl Next Door, I don’t buy that this scenario would ever happen. That Alison and Ben would hook up in the first place, that Alison would decide to keep the baby, that they would try to make the relationship work, that it would have a chance of lasting more than a few days given how frequently he’s a complete jerk (making his moments of sweetness more unlikely still).

I don’t think the actors believe it either; if it’s not quite at the pitch of Jack Black and Kate Winslet in The Holiday, Rogen and Heigl are incapable of acting as though they’re remotely attracted to each other, past Rogen’s appreciation of Heigl’s physique. I don’t buy that Pete would be kicked out of the house for attending Fantasy baseball meets on the quiet; and I especially don’t buy the hackneyed ending whereby a lifelong pothead can miraculously get himself a job, a home, a sense of responsibility and a can-do attitude just like that.

Climbing over the premise and the unlikely plot contrivances, the next hurdle is that Knocked Up presents a complete mismatch between blokey knockabout and elements of rom-com. Although Steve Carell and Catherine Keener were undoubtedly the glue that held The 40 Year-Old Virgin together, the chemistry evident in Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd’s improvised banter was a big part of that film’s success; here, the pair are thrust together awkwardly and their riffing struggles for context, although shrooming in Vegas will always be pretty funny. Incidentally, the allusion to Swingers is misjudged – thanks for reminding me, Judd, now you mention it I much prefer that movie. Meanwhile, Ben’s stoner friends – Jason Segel, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and Martin Starr – are horribly lazy, most of the jokes coming from Martin growing his hair for a bet and the others teasing him.

As for the rom-com stuff? Well, on this evidence Heigl isn’t suited to romantic comedy, but the bigger problem is that there’s absolutely nothing in the film for female viewers. While Heigl’s high-powered media job instantly makes her unsympathetic, Mann comes across as a harpy; and while the movie’s not nearly as offensive to women as Superbad, Ben is frequently unpleasant to both Alison and Debbie. In fact, both couples bicker for long stretches of the movie, bringing all the fun of The Break-Up to mind (never a good thing). Furthermore, if the bouncer’s admonishment to Debbie is meant to be a satirical take on how men unfairly perceive ‘older’ or pregnant women, it just comes across as nasty.

The next problem is one of empathy. The story thread about Alison finding a doctor she likes is apparently based on Apatow and Mann’s real-life experiences, but the concept of feeling ‘comfortable’ with your doctor is, from a British perspective at least, rather precious and more importantly, not funny. This autobiographical indulgence, together with the appearance of Apatow and Mann’s daughters, only alienates me further from the movie, which – even when described more accurately as a comedy-drama – delivers too few laughs for a two-hour film. Some of the gags are strangely familiar, too: isn’t the sex during pregnancy joke culled right out of Nine Months? And while I’m asking questions, was there really any need to glimpse the anatomical detail of the birth?

If you’re keen to do so, it’s not hard to see a despicable, misogynistic agenda in Knocked Up, a movie that blames nagging, fussy women for getting pregnant, forcing men to grow up and stop having fun in each other’s company. I’m not entirely persuaded by that argument, although Apatow-produced movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Superbad give pause for thought. I’m certainly more likely to be persuaded that Knocked Up is a rotten film than a work of comedy gold, though for the time being I still like Rogen and Rudd enough to glimpse some gold amongst the dross.

Indecent Proposal

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Happily married and very much in love, David and Diana Murphy discover love doesn’t pay the bills when recession hits. The couple head to Las Vegas to gamble their way out of trouble, but when that tactic (predictably!) doesn’t work, high roller John Gage comes up with a startling suggestion: 1 million dollars for a single night of passion with Diana. Although the couple dismiss the idea, it does offer a way out of their financial woes; on the other hand, there’s no guarantee that either of them will be able to cope with the aftermath.

Though high school sweethearts David and Diana Murphy (Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore) married young, they appear to be a perfect match: he’s an architect, she sells real estate. David has plans for a dream house and Diana knows where he can build it, but they stretch themselves financially to make the dream real; and when the economy goes bust, they suddenly find themselves $45,000 short in the face of a $50,000 bill.

In desperation, the couple head off to Vegas with their last five grand and David miraculously gets half way towards their target, while Diana eyes up some pretty dresses and billionaire playboy John Gage (Robert Redford) eyes her up in turn. The next day Lady Luck deserts David, leaving them flat broke, though John ‘borrows’ Diana for luck while recklessly placing million-dollar bets. The loan evidently puts an idea in his head, for later that night he puts the titular proposal to David and Diana. They are both mortally offended, naturally, but after a sleepless night Diana agrees to have sex with John for the sake of her and David’s future plans and David’s lawyer friend Jeremy (Oliver Platt) draws up a contract.

Diana’s whisked off to John’s luxury boat, while David frets in the casino. In the following days, the couple discover that John has not only robbed them of their marital security and trust, he’s also bought up their house and land; David is unable to forget the pact he made with the Devil and the pair fall apart, not helped by John’s ruthless pursuit of his wife. As David struggles to get his act together and Diana starts appearing on John’s arm, the relationship appears doomed to end in divorce – and what good is money if the love’s gone?

Indecent Proposal is constructed around a very simple question: What would you do? It’s clearly designed to get moviegoing couples and groups asking each other whether they would be prepared to pimp out their partners, or themselves, for a cool million dollars, and to that end the film answers its own question pretty well. The film doesn’t linger on the act – in fact, a discreet veil’s drawn over John and Diana’s indecency – but instead concentrates on the aftermath of the couple’s decision to let John buy Diana’s body for a few hours.

Harrelson is pretty good as the unhappy cuckold consumed with jealousy at giving his wife to another man, though – this being 1993 – the shadow of Cheers still hangs over him, and to an extent the film follows a believable path as neither David nor Diana can bring themselves to touch the dirty money they ‘won’ in Vegas. The story is told with a ‘near the end’ frame and a helpful (if fitful) narrative from both David and Diana, and there is enough chemistry between the two to make us feel something for their plight, if that’s the right word for their self-inflicted situation. And arching over the whole movie is the larger question of whether everything – sacred vows, trust, love, friendship – can be bought with sufficient cash: does everyone really ‘have their price’?

The problem is, Indecent Proposal is nearly two hours long and the central moral issue can’t sustain itself through the running time. It’s half an hour before John pops the question, during which time we’ve established a link between sex and money in a second glossily-shot sex scene, and had plenty of time to ask why a supposedly bright couple would try to defy the odds by gambling away the little cash they had in Vegas. Then, both during and after the act, the film dawdles along with nothing much to say as it slowly plays out the aftermath of the decision to take Gage’s money, with a number of daft, dragging scenes (John shows Diana round his pad, John – cringingly – invades her citizenship class full of stereotyped immigrants, David starts to reassemble his life by teaching) until it suddenly introduces a hippo motif and, before we know it, Billy Connolly is auctioning off the contents of a zoo!

Although the screenplay lacks focus (we hear ‘Have I ever told you I love you?’ far more than we need to), the film is let down more by a lazy, unmotivated turn from a slightly grizzled and very bored-looking Redford – though, since all he ever seems to say is ‘Let me show you something’, you can hardly blame him. Redford’s Gage is simply a man with a lot of money, the inert catalyst for change in the Murphys’ marriage who is as empty, character-wise, as his massive house, so you feel neither sympathy nor enmity towards him.

Though Demi Moore tries harder than Redford, she is used little better in the key role of Diana. Director Adrian Lyne makes sure she looks fantastic at all times – indeed, the film often has the glossy look of a soft-core feature – but her acting style is strangely cold and forbidding of empathy; in short, she looks far too glamorous to be cash-strapped and desperate, and always seems to know it. Finally, Oliver Platt is amusingly sleazy as the film’s obvious comic relief – Jeremy’s contract, with its “John Garfield” clause, is icky but also funny.

As you can read, I dislike Pretty Woman, but at least Garry Marshall’s film has a brash, colourful 80s warmth and Gere’s billionaire has some history and charm behind his wealth. Indecent Proposal‘s prostitution is of a different kind, a slick, soulless affair in both plot and execution, the torpid involvement of Robert Redford proving a misstep in the venerable actor/director’s career. Still, as the movie suggests, we all have to do things we rather wouldn’t to pay our way in the world.

History of the World: Part I

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Think you know your history? Well prepare to think again, as Mel Brooks presents the story of man, from primitive cavemen to the decadence of the French Revolution, in his own inimitable style.

The ascent of man has been chronicled many times and in many ways, but never quite like this. Starting with a wicked spoof of 2001: A Space Odyssey, renowned funster Mel Brooks and friends take us through some of the most notable events in history, narrated in stentorian fashion by Orson Welles. The quirky evolution of Sid Caesar’s Stone Age man is followed by a previously unrecorded episode from the life of an accident-prone Moses (Brooks); we arrive next in Roman Times, where stand-up philosopher Comicus (Brooks again) earns Nero’s (Dom DeLuise) displeasure at Caesar’s Palace and flees Rome with pretty Vestal Virgin Miriam (Mary-Margaret Humes) and light-footed slave Josephus (Gregory Hines) in tow.

A brief song-and-dance by the Spanish Inquisition brings us to the French Revolution, where randy King Louis XVI (Brooks yet again) frets over the imminent arrival of Mme Defarge’s (the always wonderful Cloris Leachman) rabble, leaving a doppelganger to see to Pamela Stephenson’s Mlle Rimbaud, willing to do anything – that’s anything – to free her imprisoned father (Spike Milligan).

I don’t know whether it’s truer of comedy than any other artistic endeavour, but it’s certainly true that when comedians are hot, they’re hot and when they’re not, they’re pretty lousy. And it’s alarming how cold Mel Brooks is as writer, director and star of History of the World: Part I. The episodic structure suggests a lack of inspiration, though the term ‘episodic’ really does too much justice to some of the ‘episodes’ since only two sections – Roman Times and The French Revolution – have any sort of story or substance at all.

However, the bittiness of the material isn’t nearly as damaging as the fact that so little of it is funny. The 2001 spoof is juvenile but raises a laugh because it’s so unexpected, but most of the rest is a mixture of the puerile and the overfamiliar. The hard work that goes into creating a set and props for the Fifteen Commandments is paid off weakly, while I get the distinct impression that ‘Roman Times’ was inspired by the critical and financial success of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Unfortunately, the inspiration doesn’t make it as far as the writing, with the result that the director, DeLuise, Madeleine Kahn (as Empress Nympho) and so on are forced into slapstick and manic gurning to raise laughs, while Brooks recycles material from Las Vegas cabaret and Carry on Cleo (the Vestal Virgins played by Playboy Bunnies) and still struggles for giggles, hindered as he is by Hines’ unexciting turn (he’s no Cleavon Little) and the overwhelming blandness of Humes’ attractive but boring Miriam.

Airplane!-style literalisms fall flat (‘The streets are crawling with soldiers’), and although I’d never call Brooks racist or homophobic, he panders to lazy stereotypes throughout – he’s never been averse to using dolly birds as set dressing, of course, so it would be redundant to complain about sexism.

The remainder of the film is afflicted with the same issues, exacerbated by a sense that Brooks is raiding his own back catalogue for ideas. I don’t think there’s a direct Python influence in the Spanish Inquisition sketch, but the idea of a soft-shuffling musical number making light of an episode of persecution of Jews might just ring a bell with fans of The Producers, augmented here by nuns paying tribute to Esther Williams. Similarly, the French Revolution brings us Harvey Korman as a constantly mispronounced Count de Monet and Andreas Voutsinas as his ‘saucy’ friend Bearnaise, ripping off Blazing Saddles and The Producers in one fell swoop.

As a result, and because the plot is a fairly lame excuse to engage Stephenson and others in bosom-heaving and bodice-ripping, the attention wanders into spotting familiar British faces and figures: Cleo Rocos, Bella Emberg, Nigel Hawthorne, Andrew Sachs and so on. In fact, the cameos are generally more interesting than the jokes, so you might also spot Hugh Hefner, Jackie Mason, Bea Arthur – and John Hurt as Jesus. To be totally fair, the Last Supper skit is pretty good, but it’s one of very few moments of quality and originality. Brooks’ comedies are often extremely broad and all the better for it; here, however, you’re left wishing you were watching the infinitely more substantial films in which the jokes first appeared.

Like so many things in life, the first thing that came to mind immediately after watching History of the World: Part I was an episode of The Simpsons. I’m thinking of the one in which Bart briefly becomes a comedy sensation with the catchphrase ‘I didn’t do it!’ and ends up repeating his shtick to a jaded and unappreciative audience. I’m afraid Brooks’ shtick comes unshtuck in much the same fashion in this lazy and only fitfully funny compendium. I don’t know if Part II – trailed at the end of this movie – was ever going to be made, but I’m not in the least bit sad that it didn’t come to fruition, even if Jews in Space was to prove prophetic for Mel’s next project.

Bean

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Bumbling gallery caretaker Mr Bean is dispatched to America to oversee the arrival of the priceless ‘Whistler’s Mother’ in Los Angeles. Curator David Langley eagerly awaits the masterpiece and an ultra-sophisticated art expert. What he actually invites into his home is a clumsy oaf who causes havoc wherever he goes, threatening to ruin David’s personal and professional lives.

The board of Britain’s Royal National Gallery can’t wait to fire their worst employee, dozy perpetual latecomer Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson). However, they’ve reckoned without the support of John Mills’ sympathetic chairman, who demands that he’s kept on. The board’s alternative plan is to get rid of Bean by packing him off to America, where the Grierson Art Gallery have just bought Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, or simply “Whistler’s Mother”, from the Musée D’Orsay. As far as Grierson’s highly-strung curator David (Peter MacNicol) is aware, Bean is a visiting doctor who will give a learned presentation about the painting at its official unveiling – that is, until he meets him.

At the gallery, Bean appears more interested in his trousers and taking holiday snaps than in meeting owner George Grierson (Harris Yulin) or any of the art on display, but worse is to come: firstly, Bean causes constant havoc at the Langley family’s home, causing David’s wife Alison (Pamela Reed) to fume, then move out altogether with kids Kevin and Jennifer (Andrew Lawrence and Tricia Vessey); then, mere seconds after the painting arrives in the US, Bean contrives to wipe Mrs Whistler’s face clean off the canvas. Catastrophe looms for David, but he hasn’t accounted for the unconventional Englishman’s lunatic resourcefulness.

Because I’m nice, I’ll start with what’s good about Bean. Err…well, if you like Rowan Atkinson’s physical brand of gormless gurning, there’s plenty of it in the movie. He wreaks endless mayhem in airports, on (incongruous) theme park rides, in the kitchen, the bathroom, the gallery, the hospital (of which more later), pulling the whole gamut of bizarre faces as he goes. The odd, smart Richard Curtis touch occasionally threatens to seep out (the merchandising of Whistler’s mother is abominable, yet believable), but then again so do utterly crass gags (no doubt by Curtis too) – laxatives, Bean suffering suspicious wet trousers which are dried via an unspeakable-looking interaction with a hot-air drier.

Bean is essentially a one-man show that doesn’t readily become a double act; but as far as it goes, the unlikely partnership David and Bean strike up works quite well and MacNicol does as well as can be hoped for in the circumstances – a shower scene raises a decent chuckle. But in general, the film pushes at the limits of what Mr Bean can reasonably do – he’s enough of a fish out of water on his own doorstep, so his transplantation to America seems like an unnecessary step. Moreover, by abandoning his trademark silence to give speeches Bean loses his Unique Selling Point, moving from Tati-like ingenuity to Pee Wee Hermanesque oddity.

However, if the character of Bean feels awkward on the big screen, it’s as nothing compared to the awkwardness of the plot. It’s creaky, contrived and raises a heap of questions: why, in a transaction between French and American museums, is there any need for a British gallery to be involved? Why on Earth would David invite a complete stranger into the family home? Above all, why did anyone think it would be a good idea to tack on a second, high-drama climax of Jennifer falling off a motorbike and Bean being mistaken for another sort of doctor? Bean extracting a bullet from Richard Gant’s bolshy Lt. Brutus is daft enough, but his revival of Jennifer by firstly straddling, then landing on top of her, borders on being tasteless.

I can understand why the scenes were written, to heighten the emotions, to make Bean even more of a hero, and (mostly?) to bump up the running time, but the shift in tone is entirely out of place; and since Jennifer is clearly unscathed in the following scenes, I suspect the whole section was put in as a late, if not after-, thought.

Besides, Bean could have been the best-plotted comedy in the world, could have had music that was sympathetic and apt rather than overbearing, loud and featuring lousy covers of classic pop (Stuck in the Middle With You and Yesterday), and could have used Burt Reynolds brilliantly instead of stuffing him into an utterly pointless cameo as the gallery’s sponsor, General Newman; and I would still have taken against it.

Why? M and bloody Ms. The pervasiveness of the product placement is distracting, from the first appearance of the sweets during Bean’s plane journey to the one that Bean fishes around for when he finds Brutus’ bullet (oh yes, they’re used in the plot too); but the worst offender is the vast mound of sweets that takes pride of place in the Langley home. I can understand why the film would want to send its hero to America, where the largest film market is; but if you’re so desperate to sell ‘candy’, why not just show an advert before the film? (And yes, I know there’s a Mr Bean advert for M&Ms).

Still, at the end of the day I realise that (for whatever reason) there are big fans of Mr Bean out there, and for those fans the product placement and the terrible plot are but minor considerations: Bean contains lots of Bean, and is therefore all gravy. I laughed a couple of times, and felt for little David as he struggled with his monstrous man-child of a house-guest. And at least Mel Smith’s film had a go at telling a story, unlike the entirely execrable Mr Bean’s Holiday.