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The Bumbler as Anarchist

by John Denvir, USF Law School (December 1997)

We have been having some discussions in the PJ editorial offices about whether Bean qualifies as a "law" movie. My position is that it all depends what you mean by "law." If you (a la H. L. A. Hart) limit the term to rules enforced by the courts, Bean doesn’t qualify since there is little in the movie about statutes or trials. But if you include within the term "laws" all the socially enforced rules and conventions which actually determine the quality of our lives, Bean is clearly a "law" movie— more accurately an "anti-law" movie.

The plot of the film Bean is easy to relate. Bean is employed at the National Gallery of Art in London as one of those people who sit in the museum all day to make sure no one cops a painting. As a joke (those Brits!), the head of the gallery decides to send Bean to be the National Gallery’s representative at the unveiling at an aspiring Los Angeles gallery of the newly purchased portrait of Whistler’s Mother. Although Bean (Rowan Atkinson) knows nothing about any art other than tossing jelly beans high in the air and then catching him in his mouth, the culture hungry Americans accept him as an expert. He then proceeds to destroy the unveiling and much else.

Bean is an attractive character on three scores. First, there is the juvenile in all of us. The movie glories in jokes about diarrhea and mucous, the type thing which eight year olds (of all ages) find hilarious. Secondly, Bean represents the bumbler deep down inside each of us, the little man or woman who passes from faux pas to faux pas without missing a beat. Here is one example. Just before the first meeting with the American gallery’s director, Bean stops off at the men’s room where he manages to splash water all over his pants. In order to avoid the embarrassment of people thinking he has wet his pants, Bean attempts to dry the pants by gyrating in front of the hand dryer. Suddenly, he notices his rather obscene dance is being witnessed by a gallery employee so Bean pretends he is examining a hot light bulb until the employee leaves and he can yelp in pain. I’m sure you have had similar days.

But most of all, Bean is a closet anarchist. His supposed inability to follow the ordinary rules of "normal" life turns out to be an act of will, a micro-revolutionary act. He doesn’t conform to the expectations of our bureaucratic public culture because it’s just too bloody boring. We see this when Bean is brought to an American Disney-type amusement park where he rides the "Ride of Doom," a dumbed down "scary" ride. All the passengers are happily moderately frightened by the experience, but Bean is bored. He asks to ride again, this time surreptitiously "souping up" the computer which drives the ride. As his fellow passenger faint of fear as they are thrashed back, forth, and out of their seats, Bean is sublimely content. This is finally fun.

Bean rejects the "real" world in favor of the world of imagination. For Bean "gunplay" is literally that— playing with an imaginary gun. He soon finds out that for the heavily armed LAPD, guns, like everything else, are a grim business. It’s not easy being imaginative in L.A. where fantasy is big business.

The key interaction in the film is between Bean and David Langley (Peter MacNichol), the gallery curator. Langley thinks he lives for art, but he actually is just one more middle level bureaucrat who could just as easily be found in a law or accounting firm. Like everyone else he judges the value of art by its cost; Whistler’s Mother must be great art—it cost sixty million dollars. When he is not being intimidated by his boss, he is engaged in endless negotiations with his wife and two teenage kids in what seems more like a joint venture than a family. He is so busy trying to please everyone that he pleases no one, especially himself.

Enter Bean. Bean soon solves David’s problem by various exploits which result in David effectively losing his job and his family. This being California, he probably will also end up the defendant in a lawsuit. With nothing left to lose, Bean and David go out to get drunk, and they succeed. On the way home, they sing a boozy duet of the old Beatles ballad "Yesterday." The lyrics are sad, but the singers are not. For the first time in the film David seems happy. He has nothing to live for, except the fun of living.

Of course, Bean is a Hollywood film, and a "family" comedy at that, so David cannot be left free. Therefore, by a series of improbable but amusing stunts, Bean is able to save the day and at the film’s end David regains his job and his family. Bean even gives a little speech about the importance of "family." The audience has its obligatory "happy ending." But for this viewer, the nagging question remains, "Will David ever forgive him?"

John DenvirJohn Denvir, who teaches constitutional law at USF Law School, is editor of Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts, available at local bookstores or through amazon.com.


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