Sunday, June 26, 2022

Rowan Atkinson’s Man vs Bee is a better bean

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I’m not a huge fan of Rowan Atkinson since he inflicted the pesky Mr. Bean on the world. And that despite his brilliant early work for Not the nine o’clock news and as Blackadder a few decades ago. Partly, I’ll admit, it’s because I once vaguely resembled Atkinson, dressed like Bean, drove a “classic” Mini and was laughed at by kids on the street for it. I also left Atkinson because I just didn’t “get” Bean. Innovative, ingenious and extremely popular as it was. Physical comedy isn’t for everyone.

So I didn’t have high hopes human versus bee, which morphs into beanishness for long stretches, as if Netflix wanted another Mr. Bean of their own, a Beanflix if you will, but for some reason couldn’t have the original. So Atkinson/Bean is reinvented as Trevor Bingley, a pleasant, well-meaning git who, comically, lost his previous jobs to clumsiness and incompetence and is now a house sitter. Easy, you might think.

Trevor’s first task is to take care of a huge, opulent, high-tech home filled with artwork and a fleet of rare vintage cars in the air-conditioned garage. It’s owned by an obscenely rich couple (Jing Lisi and Julian Rhind-Tutt) who set off on an exotic vacation. They make the cardinal mistake of not educating Trevor on how their large and complex home works, leaving him to read a thick manual. Apparently he mistakes a ton of pea and ham soup for the manual and keeps cooking it. Haunted, harassed and stalked by a seemingly malevolent bee – and unwittingly aided by the rather somber lapdog Cupcake left behind by the plutocrats – Trevor predictably destroys the beautiful home, albeit in an inventive and unexpected way.

When the spiritedly destructive Cupcake chases the mischievous bee into the air-conditioned library and is locked away, Trevor watches helplessly as the dog eats a priceless medieval illuminated manuscript (the room’s lock pin was previously grilled). Trevor then takes a claw hammer to the reinforced glass, but it bounces and the sharp end digs into a Mondrian, tearing a huge hole in it. It’s all that sort of beanery, albeit enhanced by the occasional “bee’s perspective” of the action, adding to the gladiator feel. Over the next few of these brief episodes, Trevor – outwitted by the Bumblebee – destroys valuable antiques, artwork and the first Jaguar E-Type ever built, and eventually blows up the place.

During video calls with his estranged wife Jess (lovingly played by Claudie Blakley) and daughter Maddy (equally sweetly played by India Fowler) and as he reflects on his absurd war with his antisocial insect enemy, Bingley begins to see how he’s lost his whole sense of what is really important in his life. Hence human versus bee gradually grows into a kind of Aesopian parable. When we discover that most of what Bingley destroys is mere copies and flakes, and his hiring as a house sitter is part of a greedy insurance scam involving a rigged burglary, Bingley is not only redeemed but vindicated.

The fantastic plots and twists work surprisingly well in the end, at least the Beanery. The only glaring flaws are that Trevor and Jess seem way too nice to be divorced, and I refuse to believe that bumblebees like peanut butter (the premise of Bingley’s desperate attempts to catch them). Nor did I need the rather crude product placement on behalf of Miele and Waitrose to remind me that posh people like their stuff.

As you’d expect from a Netflix production, it’s intelligently produced and directed, and Atkinson as Bingley is far more engaging than Bean and still brave enough to spend much of his screen time in his underpants. By the way, the bee survived and is looking forward to this second series and a little more peanut butter.

Man vs Bee is available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, June 24

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