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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Monday, August 04, 2003
Thin Blue Laughs

Hollywood doesn't seem to know what to do with Rowan Atkinson. He is one of the greatest living comics, as can be attested by anyone who has seen his brilliant work in the classic britcoms Black Adder and The Thin Blue Line. And yet the highlight of his film career is a one-scene role as a priest in the only really good film he has appeared in, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Along with some voice work in The Lion King, Atkinson has also appeared in the mediocre Bean (adapted from my least favorite of his major TV roles), played the villian in last year's Scooby Doo movie, and was in the wretched Rat Race.

This movie, incidentally, may earn a booby prize as the worst abuse of talent in cinematic history. The cast was astonishing: with Atkinson and John Cleese, it featured the stars of probably the two funniest TV series ever made. Also present were Oscar winners Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr, and Kathy Bates. Those five are more talent than most movies have or need, but the cast included as well the very funny Jon Lovitz, Seth Green, who did fine work on Buffy and was the only performer in the most recent Austin Powers sequel whose work was still fresh, Wayne Knight (Seinfeld's Newman), and Breckin Meyer, star of the short-lived but fairly good comedy, Inside Schwartz. The director, Jerry Zucker, was Executive Producer for the string of hilarious Leslie Nielsen vehicles that included Airplane!, Top Secret! and the Naked Gun series. How do you go wrong with so much talent? I don't know, but Rat Race did, and did it spectacularly.

Atkinson's current film, Johnny English, wastes only the talents of himself and villain John Malkovich - the female lead, Natalie Imbruglia, is gorgeous but has no noticable acting skills - but it wastes them thoroughly. Atkinson plays a bumbling agent who dreams of being the next James Bond but is used only as a paper pusher. He gets his chance to become a real secret agent when his own stupidity leads to the death of all the competent spies. His first assignment is to guard the Crown Jewels at an event where they are, inevitably, stolen. This launches a series of allegedly comic misadventures as English chases down the jewels and thwarts the evil plan of Pascal Sauvage (Malkovich) to make himself King, assisted by Imbruglia as an Interpol agent and Ben Miller as English's far more competent assistant, Bough. The running joke in which Bough seems to feel sincere admiration for his imbecilic boss lead to some of the film's few funny moments. The weak plot isn't intended to be more than a setup for the jokes and would be passable if the jokes were better.

Johnny English runs short at 86 minutes, but it feels far longer. The final credits actually come as something of a relief. Every one of the 24 half-hour episodes of Black Adder, even the forgettable first series, had more laughs than the one and a half hours of Johnny English. And most of them had better stories, too.

There is hope of an improvement in Atkinson's upcoming film, the unreleased Love Actually, which is a group of intertwined love stories. It will reunite Atkinson with the writer Richard Curtis (who will also be making his directorial debut). Curtis was one of the authors of Black Adder, and has an impressive list of other writing credits for the screen (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary, and the aforementioned Four Weddings and a Funeral) and TV (The Vicar of Dibley and Not the Nine O'Clock News). The cast is impressive: Atkinson, Liam Neeson, Elisha Cuthbert (24's Kim), Colin Firth, Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie's Nadia), Hugh Grant, Kiera Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean), Denise Richards, Emma Thompson, and Alan Rickman (Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films).

Update: At least one person who has seen an advance screening of Love Actually actually loved it.