Nov 5, 1997 at 12:00 am

Mr. Bean, the mostly mute comic character created and portrayed by British actor Rowan Atkinson, may already be familiar to many via the "Mr. Bean" television series, which was one of the most popular comedy shows of the '90s in Britain and has been widely shown on public television stations in the United States.

A typical episode follows Bean through the events of an ordinary day, a succession of mundane but not necessarily interconnected situations that provide the occasions for his comic antics. The film differs from this loosely coherent format in that it places Bean squarely within a well-developed story.

In the film, Bean actually has a job as a somnolent security guard at the London National Art Gallery. The board of directors desperately wants to fire him but is unable to when the chairman opposes it. Instead, they rid themselves of Bean by packing him off to America accompanying Whistler's Mother (which has just been purchased by the Grierson Gallery in Los Angeles at an astronomical sum by an arrogant, jingoistic general played by Burt Reynolds), passing Bean off as a great English art scholar who will add "depth and dignity" to the painting's official reception.

During his stay in LA, the esteemed "Doctor" Bean is to reside at the family home of the earnest and unsuspecting art curator David Langley (Peter MacNicol, recently seen in the TV series "Chicago Hope").

Lanky, awkward and childlike, Atkinson's Bean is generally well-meaning, but also possesses an appalling selfish streak, and his every action seems inevitably to lead to disaster. Before he knows what hit him, David's marriage is on the rocks, his job is in jeopardy and the priceless Whistler has met with an unfortunate fate at the hands of the good doctor.

There are plenty of classic Beanian moments, such as when Bean makes his a.m. cup of coffee, attempts to negotiate the LA airport (prompting a security guard to ask, "Are you presently on any kind of medication?") and prepares a turkey dinner at David's home (complete with an appetizer of raw onion with frilly toothpicks).

If none of this sounds particularly funny on paper, it's because Atkinson's comedy is so thoroughly physical and visual, harking back to Hollywood's Golden Age of silent comedy in the '20s and the work of Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton.

The film fares less well when David's marriage problems get serious and their daughter is injured in a motorcycle accident, the melodramatic turn of the plot undercutting the antic levity. Bean is at his best when exclusively wreaking havoc in his anarchic universe, not when learning the meaning of family values.

Confirmed Bean aficionados should surely enjoy this film, while the uninitiated will find it an entertaining introduction to a masterful clown.

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