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Johnny English

Combine an outrageous espionage plot, broad stereotypes, a rubbery comedian, and the French, and what do you have? Naturally, a Jerry Lewis movie.

Except this isn't the sixties, Jerry's heyday, though Johnny English would dearly love to evoke the period. (Robbie Williams does what he can with the theme song.) No, this is the twenty-first century, friends, with a need to update the rude innocence of those bygone days with sex and poop. For our rubbery comedian, we have the brilliant Rowan Atkinson. Brilliant in small doses, sadly.

Trying to spoof the spy genre, specifically Bond which lapsed into self-parody a while ago anyway, Johnny English gets all the right beats down. In a few places, it even manages to lift them into funny scenes. When director Peter Howitt gives Atkinson a chance to display his gifts as a physical comic, such as trying to look cool and dance while on a powerful muscle relaxant, the film starts to take on a giddy energy.

But such scenes are strangely few and far between. Quickly, the needs of the gossamer plot bring them back down to earth. It's a shame, because clocking in at less than ninety minutes, this film comedy has room for a little more film comedy.

The obligatory car chase stretches just enough, but even then, it's more of an interesting idea than out and out funny. English (Atkinson) and his sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) pursue jewel thieves in a tow truck carrying their sleek spy car, which then turns into some daring stunt work as they try to crane the car out into oncoming traffic. But still, there's no element in it that would be out of place in a regular Bond film. Heck, Atkinson has even been in one, Never Say Never Again.

With the presence of Bough (pronounced "Boff"), the film owes a little to the Inspector Clouseau films, too. Actually, it's closer to the Inspector cartoons, with Bough serving as Dou Dou, always covering for English' mistakes with a less and less cheerful demeanor. Because the film treats everything outside of its lead's antics with a mundane seriousness, Boff's willingness to serve gets less and less believable.

English's ability to remain employed by the British secret service also defies credulity. Then again, maybe not. When he finally gets "taken off the case" by his superior, Pegasus (Tim Pigott-Smith), it's only because all evidence points to prison tycoon Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich) as the film's villain, and for plot's sake, nobody wants to believe it.

Of course, for plot's sake, there are also two capers designed to throw both the audience and English off the trail of what's really going on. Half-way through the film, either Sauvage changes his mind or the movie does. Only the villain's grandest of schemes actually has any effect.

The script by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade is full of little contrivances that exist only to string woefully sparse gags together. Though the film opens with English fantasizing about being a ladies' man a la Bond (here called Agent One), Interpol agent Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia) later finds herself fascinated with this bumbling agent because…well…because that's what's supposed to happen in these types of movies. Imbruglia herself becomes the butt of a gag that's right out of Never Say Never Again - where it then involved Atkinson.

Everyone onscreen strives mightily. Imbruglia has a strong presence and some skill, though she's not really asked to do much. In the thankless sidekick role, Miller looks like a leading man trying hard not to break out. Providing either one of the most authentic or outrageous French accents in recent screen history, Malkovich does his best to look interested in something more than a paycheck. It is, at least, believable that his charm blinds people to his malevolence.

And then there's the star. On television, Atkinson has proven over and over what a truly gifted man he is. However, his characters there are funny because of their basic unlikability and inevitable comeuppance. The only time that has translated to film effectively (and Atkinson was not the star) was in The Tall Guy opposite Jeff Goldblum. Every vehicle designed to star Atkinson since has translated the jerk he plays well, but makes him a success. It may be real, but it's just not funny.

Bits of this film may cause laughter, but viewed in its entirety, it just grows boring. You can wait for Comedy Central to show it twenty times next summer, and then don't catch it all at once. It will play better that way.


Derek McCaw

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