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‘Man vs. the Bee’ review: Rowan Atkinson’s Netflix comedy is better than Bean

I haven’t been a big fan of Rowan Atkinson since he gave the world the tiresome Mr. Bean. And this despite his brilliant early work for Not nine o’clock news and like Blackadder decades ago. Partly, I confess, it’s because I once bore a vague resemblance to Atkinson, dressed like Bean, drove a “classic” Mini and thus laughed at the kids on the street. I also left Atkinson because I just didn’t “get” Bean. Innovative, inventive and wildly popular as he was. Physical comedy is not for everyone.

So high hopes for man vs bee, which turns into Beanishness for a long time, as if Netflix wanted another of their own Mr. Bean, Beanflix if you will, but couldn’t get the original for some reason. Consequently, Atkinson/Bean is reimagined as Trevor Bingley, a likable, well-meaning idiot who oddly enough lost his previous job due to his clumsiness and incompetence, and now works as a nanny. Easy, you might think.

Trevor’s first assignment is to look after a huge, high-tech home filled with art and a fleet of rare classic cars in a climate-controlled garage. It belongs to an obscenely rich couple (Jing Lisi and Julian Rhind-Tutt) who are on an exotic vacation. They make a serious mistake by not explaining to Trevor how their large and complex house works, leaving him to read a thick manual. Apparently he takes a ton of pea and ham soup as a guide and keeps making it. Haunted, harassed, and stalked by what appears to be a vicious bee, and unwittingly aided by the rather dim-witted pet dog Keks abandoned by the plutocrats, Trevor, as expected, destroys a beautiful home, albeit in an ingenious and unexpected way.

Thus, when the temperamentally destructive Cupcake chases a mischievous bee into an air-conditioned library and locks himself in, Trevor is left helplessly watching the dog eat a priceless medieval illuminated manuscript (the room’s lock pin was grilled earlier). Trevor then hits the reinforced glass with a hammer, but it rebounds and the sharp end pierces Mondrian, making a huge hole in it. This is still the same Beanery, albeit enhanced by the fact that from time to time he is given a “bee’s look” on what is happening, which adds to the gladiatorial feeling. Over the next few of these short episodes, Trevor outsmarts the bumblebee and destroys precious antiques, artwork, and the first Jaguar E-type ever built, eventually blowing up the place.

While on videophone conversations with his estranged wife Jess (played cutely by Claudie Blakely) and daughter Maddy (also cutely Indian Fowler) and reflecting on his absurd war with his anti-social insect enemy, Bingley begins to see how he lost his entire life . a sense of perspective about what is really important in his life. In this way man vs bee gradually develops into the kind of Aesopian parable. When we discover that most of what Bingley destroys are mere copies and fakes, and his job as a carer is part of a greedy insurance scam involving a fake burglary, Bingley is not only redeemed, but vindicated.

Fantasy plots and twists work surprisingly well after all, after all Beanery. The only glaring flaws are that Trevor and Jess seem too good to be bred and I refuse to believe bumblebees love peanut butter (the premise of Bingley’s frantic attempts to catch it). I also didn’t need a rather crude product placement from Miele and Waitrose to remind me that aristocrats love their stuff.

As you’d expect from a Netflix production, it’s cleverly thought out and shot, with Atkinson as Bingley far more attractive than Bean, and still playful enough to spend most of his screen time in his underpants. Bee, by the way, survives and is looking forward to the second series and some more peanut butter.

Man vs. the Bee will be available to watch on Netflix starting Friday, June 24th.

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