Armchair Cinephile 

The Whole Bean (A&E) Tuvalu (First Run) Comedian (Miramax)

The Hollywood outing of Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean character in 1997 (titled simply Bean) was such a dud that Americans who don't watch public television may have written the character off before they were properly introduced. The DVD age is here to remedy that, with the recent packaging of The Whole Bean, a three-disc collection of 14 episodes, each of which is basically three or four short films strung together with only as much plot as is necessary.

These shorts are brilliant examples of good old-fashioned physical comedy, with an ancestry easily traced back through Monty Python and Jacques Tati to Buster Keaton. Atkinson practically

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never speaks, but his body language tells us plenty; he's pompous yet insecure, id-controlled but cowardly, and completely heedless of others' needs. He isn't good-at-heart the way his predecessors were, and one of the ways his routine differs from theirs is that we're often rooting for him to fail. Somehow he stumbles through unscathed, despite a remarkable lack of hand-eye coordination and social skills. After watching a few hours of this, it's clear that the movie's failing was trying to impose a 90 minutes' worth of narrative on the twit, draping a prosaic plot over his bumbling poetry.

The barely released German film Tuvalu, on the other hand, has no problem contriving a plot for its speechless actors, although it's not a tale for everyone. Tuvalu is a practically wordless film (when characters do speak, they grunt in an unintelligible, though vaguely familiar, language) with sound effects

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and music, set in a decaying Eastern European resort. The caretaker, Anton, struggles to hold the ceiling tiles in place while convincing his blind father that their business is still booming; enter Eva, one of their few customers, who steals Anton's heart but has her eyes on a more commercially viable piece of property.

It takes a while to get oriented in director Veit Helmer's delicately tinted black-and-white world, but once you're acclimated it's easily as charming as the oddball one created by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet in Delicatessen; it's a place with its own rules and customs, where anyone with a heart dreams of escape while tending to loved ones they don't think they will ever leave - between the exquisite cinematography, a lead performance by an actor with a clown's expressive face, and a set so decayed it had to be real (it was), Tuvalu earns its place among the great weird cult films.

You can't get much further from silent, physical comedy than Jerry Seinfeld, whose re-entry into the world of stand-up comedy is documented in Comedian. Having read less than favorable musings on the recent film in these pages, I popped the disc in mainly for the brief bonus interview between Seinfeld and Jiminy Glick (Martin Short's clueless fat suit persona), thinking that Glick's inherently physical schtick might bring out an interesting side of the prime-time star. It did, sort of: The comic seemed genuinely uncomfortable, which I view as a good thing.

But before ejecting the disc, I decided to look at a few minutes of the movie itself. An hour and a half later I was still watching, thinking that the Current had given the film a raw deal. There is nothing appealing about Orny Adams, the aspiring comic whose flirtation with the big time is used to balance Seinfeld's tale, and the star himself does little to convince you he is more likable than his TV persona - but what's fascinating is watching Seinfeld and his peers talk about what they do in candid after-the-gig conversations, and watching the very real anguish that even a superstar feels going in front of an audience with a vest full of untried material. (We even get, ever so briefly, to see him flounder helplessly in front of an unforgiving crowd.) It's more a snapshot than a dissertation, but in a movie world where unimaginatively put-together stand-up films are a dime a dozen, Comedian is a valuable document whether you care much for the performer or not. •

More by John DeFore



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