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Want funny? See his movies.

It's all on the screen: The real Rowan Atkinson doesn't have much in common with his bumbling creations.

July 13, 2003|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

The eyes bulge like a man about to explode. The jaw is sunken and charmless like the loneliest guy at a dance. He scrunches himself up and leans forward to sip a cup of breakfast tea, then rubs his close-cropped hair with the flat of his hand, not unlike a cat grooming itself.

We meet Rowan Atkinson during a brief visit the British actor is making to Los Angeles and we wonder if he'll fall apart on sight, or slither under the table from an overdose of muscle relaxant, or puff up his cheeks and exhale like a train whistle leaving Paddington station. Anything that makes a crowd bust a gut guffawing just with a wink, or a nod, or the twist of a neck.

For this is one of the world's great funnymen, a reed-thin, elephant-eared, dark-browed oddity whose persona seemingly sprang from the mind of a demented scientist or, perhaps, the inbreeding of British royalty. His features define nerdy, a Humphrey Bogart for idiots, an expression so dour he's like the saddest conductor on a trolley to nowhere.

But the fact of the matter is that Atkinson -- the real Atkinson, not the wildly popular screen persona -- simply isn't that funny. Oh, he deadpans a few lines here and there and he has a few stories to tell, like how he is often confused by typesetters writing headlines for British papers with the archbishop of Canterbury, who is also named Rowan (Williams, for the record), but all in all, let it be known the real Rowan Atkinson is something of a bore.

But on TV and in the movies, the 48-year-old actor mutates into a creature so odd and dippy that the characters he has created have spawned all sorts of crazed fans around the globe who can't seem to get enough of the Blackadder, that arrogant, cynical ex-aristocrat, or the ridiculous Mr. Bean, a man who never grew up, causes mischief, seldom talks, and whose constant companion is a teddy bear.

So who is Rowan Atkinson really, you ask, and what about this new character he plays in the spy comedy "Johnny English," which debuts in the U.S. Friday and which audiences overseas have already embraced? One thing Atkinson knows is who he's not in the movie. He's not James Bond, and he's definitely not Austin Powers.

" 'Austin Powers' was a sendup of the 007 franchise, not 'Johnny English.' 'Austin Powers' is really a spoof, whereas I don't think we are," Atkinson noted. "We are lightly parodic, I would say, but it's sort of a conventional British spy story with slightly dafter jokes and a more ridiculous central character, which is not the same as a parody. Clearly, we rely on people's foreknowledge of the genre and, of course, the plot is fairly absurd -- the monarchy aspect, the whole idea of a Frenchman wanting to take over [the throne]."

In the film, Atkinson plays a bumbling desk clerk at Britain's spy agency who is suddenly called upon to save the crown jewels when every other secret agent is blown to smithereens by a dastardly criminal played by John Malkovich, who has the most over-the-top French accent this side of Pepe Le Pew. While the humor in "Johnny English" is somewhat juvenile (sophisticated critics in England loathed it, fans adored it), the film is actually family friendly and its unsubtle nature is aimed at pleasing everyone from squirming 8-year-olds to the Fixodent crowd.

Some scenes are particularly memorable, like the one in which the archbishop of Canterbury is about to crown Malkovich's French master criminal as the new British king when Johnny English literally swings into action as he attempts to grab the crown before it is placed on Malkovich's head. In the ensuing chaos, the archbishop is thoroughly embarrassed when he winds up standing with his naked rear exposed to the assembled guests inside Westminster Abbey.

But do jokes about the queen or the archbishop of Canterbury easily translate to American audiences? Universal Pictures, which is releasing the movie domestically, certainly thinks so. "We did two test screenings here in Los Angeles to a pretty broad audience," the actor said. "They didn't seem to have a problem with [the British humor].

"It's very simple family entertainment. It's a slightly old-fashioned movie, I think, with simple, identifiable themes."

While there is much about daffy royalty that comedians like Atkinson find irresistible for skewering, he is actually a big defender of the British crown and its traditions.

"I love the monarchy, and I love to see the richness and intrigue which surrounds it," he said. "I think it gives light and color that would be sorely missed if it wasn't there anymore. But it's also a fantastic source of comedy. The whole thing is medieval and irrational, but that's what is good about it. Rather than saying, 'It's medieval and irrational, let's get rid of it,' I say, 'Let's keep it and make it even more medieval and irrational.' "

Inspired by Jacques Tati

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