In Bean: the Ultimate Disaster Movie (PG), Atkinson's gurning social misfit is a National Gallery attendant who - for reasons that are never explained - enjoys the patronage of the Chairman of the Board (a gentle afternoon's work for Sir John Mills). Naturally, the other board members detest the lowly employee, and so pack him off to the States to oversee the relocation of Whistler's Mother to a Los Angeles gallery - a multi- millionaire army general (Burt Reynolds) has bought it from the Musee d'Orsay and requires an English academic to lecture at the opening ceremony. Mr Bean, of course, is no Professor Gombrich - he's not even Sister Wendy - and when he's left alone with the picture, catastrophe strikes: he sneezes all over it, and as he attempts to wipe the snot off the famous canvas, manages to obliterate Mrs Whistler's head.
It's a scenario with distinct possibilities, so how come the film is so depressingly dreadful? Let me count the ways. For a start, there's the Bean persona itself: selfish, infantile, vicious, and too freakishly inhuman to command much sympathy. It's difficult to enjoy the destruction he causes, and harder still to feel for him in his misfortunes, since he never seems particularly contrite. Ten minutes into the film, you are already grossed out on schadenfreude.
Secondly, there's the fact that screenwriters Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll have gone to great pains to carpet-bomb any wit from their script. No one wants a mental workout from a mainstream summer comedy, but if Bean had mustered the sophistication of, say, Police Academy 5, it would have kept me relatively sweet. Atkinson is reported to have geared his gags to the intellectual level of a nine-year-old boy, but this is a piece of work that would insult the intelligence of blue-green algae.
It's not just the lack of invention and the waste of talent that makes Bean such a mortifying experience. What's really upsetting is that these are conscious strategies rather than accidental faults. It is imbecilic by design, crafted so that even the most clueless viewer will encounter no disconcerting ambiguity. Bean remains silent not because Atkinson wants to explore the possibilities of wordless comedy (as Mel Brooks did in Silent Movie, for instance), but in order to fashion a product as universal as bog paper - something that can be put to the same use in America, Armenia and Aberystwyth. It's dumbing down taken to a literal extreme: they've even dropped the "Mr" from the title to avoid renaming the movie for non-Anglophone markets. Atkinson, Curtis, Driscoll and director Mel Smith have pulled off a trick greater than the solution of Fermat's Last Theorem - they have found something lower than the lowest common denominator.
While the success of Atkinson's reptilian alter ego may make his face one of the most widely recognised on the planet, it is a massively retrograde step in his development as a performer. Is it pure greed that motivates this? Or is it a revenge on the New York critics who closed his (excellent) 1986 Broadway show and dismissed his "toilet humour"? Could that be why he's so keen to prove that there's a massive global audience for poorly- conceived routines about mucus, laxatives and wet trousers?
To be fair, Bean does contain a passionate message that's more obvious and powerful than most of its gags. It's "Buy M&Ms". First, we see its hero necking them on a plane, logo rampant, and - oddly enough - when he arrives in America, a huge inverted pyramidal dish of the things is sitting on his hosts' coffee table. (Does anyone in the world have five kilograms of sugar-coated peanuts as the centrepiece of their living room?) Then there's the M&M midnight snack, and finally, the scene in a hospital operating theatre where Bean mislays a yellow M&M in a patient's open wound. Having mentioned them three times, I expect a tenner by return of post.
For being a prodigious British export, like Thatcherism and spent fuel rods, Bean deserves credit. If its perpetrators are still paying tax in this country, then the NHS may be saved. But if you'd rather remember them for their smart, funny and coherent work, stick on a video of Blackadder, The Tall Guy or Four Weddings and a Funeral, get yourself a bag of anything but M&Ms, and remain ignorant of how low the mighty have sunk in pursuit of profit.
Far funnier than Bean, but burdened with a title that Atkinson's marketing department would certainly have vetoed, is George Armitage's Grosse Pointe Blank (15). Like a lot of films these days, it's the everyday story of a contract killer beset by personal crises. However, when the hitman and her are played by the fiercely watchable John Cusack and Minnie Driver, you can forgive a degree of formulaic kookiness.
Cusack's Martin Q Blank is on his way to his high-school reunion, but, as he explains to his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin), he's going to have trouble making conversation about the 10 years since he graduated. "I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How have you been?" won't make for comfy smalltalk.
There's a lot of fun to be had here, and Armitage manages the collision of the two social worlds with an enthusiastically nasty sense of the absurd. Driver's Debi, a Detroit DJ, is an uncanny piece of Streepian accent- work, but Tom Jankewicz's script doesn't give her enough to do. A shame, since she is a rare element no director can afford to squander - a female romantic lead who can act the spots off the Pfeiffers and the Robertses, and who doesn't look like a filleted anorexic.
This week's other releases have a mainland flavour. Set in a kind of adman's Calabria, Paul Weiland's Roseanna's Grave (PG) is a cute rural comedy for people who couldn't be arsed to read the subtitles on Il Postino. It is a world of sun-dried whimsy: you expect the Blairs to drive by in a Fiat Tipo, or a phalanx of waiters to appear with a binge-sized Viennetta on a silver dish. The photography, in which everything is rendered in biscuity terracotta, is over-lovely and transparently derivative; an Italianate recycling of images from Jean de Florette, via the Stella Artois advert.
Within those steadfastly middlebrow restrictions, Roseanna's Grave is pleasant enough. As long as you're not Italian, that is. If you are, then the cast may cause some irritation: there are genuine Italian players in minor roles, but the key positions are all taken by a team of foreign actors, led by Jean Reno (Fr), Mercedes Ruehl (USA), Polly Walker (GB) and Trevor Peacock (GB), all biting their thumbs and gesticulating like mad. The narrative, which concerns the attempts of Marcello (Reno) to secure the last vacant plot in the old village cemetery for his terminally ill wife (Ruehl), has its charms, but falls at the last hurdle with a misjudged and implausible conclusion.
The Spanish vineyards which form the setting of Julio Medem's Tierra (18) are no more part of the real world than Weiland's fictional village of Travento, but all's well here. The landscape has the rosy aridity of a Pathfinder photograph of Mars, and Medem makes it fertile ground for his strain of magic realism. Appropriately, there are other unearthly qualities at work: the film's hero, Angel (a statuesque Carmelo Gomez), is a woodlouse exterminator with an invisible twin, and the plot follows his attempts to shake off this spirit-guide and get the right girl. As you'd guess from such a summary, Tierra is a film with a hyperactive symbolic imagination, and while this is often puzzling, it never frustrates. A beautiful, beguiling film which would repay a couple of careful viewings.
You can't say the same for Arnaud Desplechin's Ma Vie Sexuelle (15). One sitting for three hours' worth of arguments between bed-hopping Parisian existentialists will be more than enough. Paul (Mathieu Amairic) has a life running in strange parallel with that of Kierkegaard - like the Danish philosopher, he suddenly dumps his girlfriend and has a fit of paralysis. Paul gets into rows with his friends and lovers, who employ rhetorical flourishes like: "Would you mind if we quote Adorno?" There's more self-conscious philosophising in this film than in a lorryload of fortune cookies. Even the narrator offers the odd Kundera soundbite. I waited in vain for the plot to punish these characters for their pretentious self-absorption, but it never happened.
One striking scene, in which Paul extracts a dead monkey from behind a radiator, hints at what Desplechin might have achieved if he'd managed to arrest his characters' verbal diarrhoea. Instead, reams of dialogue and monologue leave you wondering what the hell they were all talking about. Which, irritatingly enough, is a key Kierkegaardian concept. If I may quote Jean-Paul Sartre, "Kierkegaard steals language from knowledge to use it against knowledge." Ergo, M&Ms melt in your mouth, but not in your hand.
Cinema details: Going Out, opposite.