Johnny English (2003, Peter Howitt)

Johnny English runs just under ninety minutes, which is one of the film’s secret weapons–nothing ever goes on too long, not the good stuff, not the bad stuff, not the mediocre stuff. There’s not a lot of bad stuff–more varying degrees of mediocre; when things then get better, when things finally pay off, it’s a cause for celebration. When Johnny English gets funny, it gets funny.

The film is a Rowan Atkinson vehicle masquerading as an incredibly safe James Bond spoof. Atkinson is a British Security Service office worker who gets promoted to number one agent. Because, through his incompetence, everyone else has been killed. Somehow his boss, Tim Pigott-Smith, never holds Atkinson accountable for the very inept and dangerous things he’s done, instead railing on him for the things where Atkinson is actually right.

Like how French private prison-owning billionaire John Malkovich is a bad guy.

Malkovich is another of English’s secret weapons, because he doesn’t play his part like a Bond villain. He plays it like a goofy Malkovich comedy part. He’s never outrageous or campy–unfortunately–but he’s always got enough energy to make the scenes work. Atkinson never gets to be showy. Malkovich gets to be showy. He’s the only one who gets to be showy.

Bringing us to the other–and probably last–secret weapon: Ben Miller. He plays Atkinson’s subordinate. Miller is the spy office peon who should be the secret agent. There’s a lengthy period where Miller’s not in the film and Atkinson is playing sidekick to real secret agent Natalie Imbruglia and Malkovich isn’t really in the movie and it gets long. There are also too many poop jokes. Because without Miller and Malkovich around, English has to go into the literal potty to get some humor going.

Because Imbruglia doesn’t bring anything. It’s not a great part and she’s not terrible, but she’s got no presence and less personality. Her comic timing–at least in her timing as it reacts to Atkinson–is fine though.

Atkinson has some great physical comedy in English. Nowhere near enough, but the movie wouldn’t really know what to do with any more. Director Howitt does an adequate, uninspired job. He doesn’t get in the way of the good jokes and he doesn’t make the bad ones any worse. So he wouldn’t know what to do with more physical comedy. Howitt’s impatient, while everyone else seems completely comfortable not being rushed. Not ninety minutes but also not rushed. The film’s self-awareness about its limitations increases its charm.

Anyway, back to Atkinson. He’s good. He’s hilarious at times. His straight man performance as the stupid secret agent is most impressive–at least during the expository scenes–in how seriously Atkinson takes the part. He’s going for it’s funny because he’s so serious. When other actors aren’t as serious about their parts as Atkinson, it hurts. Imbruglia, for example. Miller gets it, Malkovich gets it. Pigott-Smith not really.

Of course, the writing tends to be thin. Pigott-Smith not transcending the caricature isn’t entire his fault.

Howitt’s lack of enthusiasm for directing his actors–he showcases the comedy, focusing tightly on the comedy, not the actors essaying it–doesn’t help either.

Technically the film’s fine. Nothing stands out, good or bad. The music isn’t overtly “Bond,” which is kind of nice, and the Robbie Williams theme song is fun.

Thanks to Atkinson (and the professionally executed production), it’d be difficult for Johnny English to fail too hard. It’s both a surprisingly pleasant comedy and a not insignificant disappointment. With Atkinson, Miller, and Malkovich, it seems like it could be better. However, it’s not clear if it should be any better.

Additionally… if you’re going to have Prunella Scales play the Queen, give her at least one joke. What should be an inspired comedic casting is instead an end credits curio.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Howitt; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and William Davies; director of photography, Remi Adefarasin; edited by Robin Sales; music by Ed Shearmur; production designer, Chris Seagers; produced by Eric Fellner, Mark Huffam, and Lucette Legot; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Rowan Atkinson (Johnny English), John Malkovich (Pascal Sauvage), Natalie Imbruglia (Lorna Campbell), Ben Miller (Bough), Tim Pigott-Smith (Pegasus), Oliver Ford Davies (Archbishop of Canterbury), and Kevin McNally (Prime Minister).


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