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English of the English

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In recent years, a number of small, modest, mostly comic works, many of them dealing with the lives of working-class people in dreary provincial towns, typify the current minor renaissance in British cinema. Within their narrative process and despite their humorous treatment, films like The Full Monty, Little Voice, Brassed Off, and even Trainspotting address some of the nation's social and economic issues, with a determined avoidance of melodrama and without any attempt to disguise their low-budget ordinariness. Such films may lack the graceful high spirits and stellar casts of the Ealing Studios comedies of an earlier era, but they maintain an English tradition dating back at least to Dickens, combining genuine social concern with sprightly humor and a sense of the abundant native eccentricity.

            Although an entirely British production, the new Rowan Atkinson movie, Johnny English, virtually abandons the best of both past and present, adopting instead a glossy Hollywood look and pitching its feeble humor to the lowest common denominator. A farrago of tired jokes and embarrassingly stereotypical situations, the movie proceeds along one straight track, propelled by one lame joke, all of it borne on the weak back of its inadequate star. Its dull, predictable script provides little variety for Atkinson's simple, limited talents, which meld perfectly with the unimaginative direction of Peter Howitt, the man responsible for the memorably awful Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, Sliding Doors.

            The movie began life, strangely, as a series of television commercials for a British credit card company, featuring Atkinson as a bumbling spy. Transformed into a feature-length motion picture, Johnny English turns out to be yet another spoof of the James Bond films, which seems even stranger than making a movie out of a TV advertisement. The Bond imitations and parodies date all the way back to the 1960s and should properly have met their unlamented end long before now --- certainly the decidedly unfunny Austin Powers flicks demonstrate little more than what the emergency rooms call heroic measures for their attempts to breathe life into a cold corpse.

            The picture, which has earned big bucks overseas, plods along in its tedious, laborious way, following tired formulas worn out by a score or more previous films, most of them at least marginally superior in form and content. Atkinson, well known to a segment of the American public from the Blackadder series shown on public television, plays Johnny English, a functionary in the British Secret Service who daydreams about being a successful agent like the heroic Agent One (Greg Wise). When One meets his demise on a mission planned by English with his usual skill, and all the other operatives are blown up at One's funeral, again thanks to English, Johnny gets his chance to serve as One's successor.

            Johnny's first job, to provide security for a special display of the Crown Jewels, naturally turns out to be a disaster. A gang under the supervision of the usual criminal mastermind steals the orb, scepter, crown, etc. at the height of a monarchical celebration. The chief villain, Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich), a Frenchman with a distant claim to the throne, believes that his possession of the jewels, together with threatening the Queen's corgis, and the blessing of a fake Archbishop of Canterbury, will enable him to be crowned King of England. So the picture turns into a silly series of the usual pursuits, crashes, shootouts, break-ins, and fistfights, all more or less comic in nature, as English bungles every mission but somehow ends up foiling the plan at Sauvage's coronation ceremony in Westminster Cathedral.

            In keeping with Atkinson's special inclinations, the humor all tends to be broad and overstated. The threadbare Bond parody --- the same insistent music, the same gun, the car equipped with manifold gadgets, the white dinner jacket, the beautiful woman, etc. --- provides only a negligible excuse for the somber jokes and graceless pratfalls. Although considered a physical comedian, Atkinson moves without discernible athleticism and performs only the most obvious stunts and gags. For fans of his last movie, Bean, he includes only one scatological turn, making his way into Sauvage's castle via the main sewage pipe, where, of course, he endures the mass flush of the communal toilets. The scene pretty much sums up the film's level of appeal and, at the same time, provides an accurate, if tasteless, critical comment.

            Contemporary English visual comedy essentially consists of two poles of thought and action: Monty Python's Flying Circus, featuring chinless, upper-class Oxford twits at play, or The Benny Hill Show, displaying the traditional music-hall, lower-class vitality and vulgarity. Atkinson appears to imitate Benny Hill in the manner of Monty Python, an undertaking that seldom succeeds in either direction. Johnny English lacks vivacity, wit, and intelligence, and even its physical gags provoke no laughs. I prefer Benny Hill or even James Bond to anything in this sad imitation.

Johnny English, starring Rowan Atkinson, Ben Miller, Natalie Imbruglia, John Malkovich, Tim Pigott-Smith, Douglas McFerran, Steve Nicolson, Kevin McNally, Oliver Ford Davies, Greg Wise; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and William Davies; directed by Peter Howitt. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:20 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 8:50 a.m.

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