Like finding one last Christmas present buried in the toe of your stocking, you’ll discover that Bernard and the Genie is a delightful treat and a pop of real joy. A rare 1991 BBC production that deserves at least a respectable DVD release, this 67 minute movie directed by Paul Weiland and written by Richard Curtis features satisfying performances from stars Alan Cumming, Lenny Henry, and Rowan Atkinson. It’s a wacky intersection of Aladdin’s tale, the Gospels, and time travel with welcome reflections on friendship and commercialism.
You wouldn’t think this was a warm addition for the holidays by the looks of it though. Henry plays Josephus who, due to a knife throwing incident gone awry, is imprisoned inside a genie lamp for two millennia. In the present, hapless art dealer Bernard Bottle, played by an earnest, fresh faced Alan Cumming, is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. His kindness at work hasn’t won him praise but instead has gotten him fired, he discovers his girlfriend is bonking is best friend (Kevin), and when he invites her over to collect her things, she cleans out his flat. At the end of the day, all he has left are a few pieces of furniture and a tarnished lamp.
Bernard’s luck changes in a flash when Josephus bursts out of the lamp, and after an initial misunderstanding, the two become fast friends. It’s a good thing too because both are in need of companionship. After all, “it’s a tough dog-stabs-dog-in-the-back-and-then-dog-eats-dog kind of world,” observes Josephus. Bernard delights in taking his new friend around London and introducing him to the pleasures of modernity. The latter is particularly enchanted by Mozart, Big Macs, and the Terminator. Meanwhile, Josephus is Bernard’s personal wishing well, which turns out to be very handy for someone who’s feeling down and out. It takes awhile for both of them to get the hang of the arrangement since Josephus doesn’t have much genie training, but once they do, they use their wishes liberally.
Don’t be deceived by this movie’s small, banged up, and dated package. Curtis’s wry and witty script packs in a lot of humor that’s just as fresh and funny today as it was twenty-five years ago, minus some off-color jokes along the lines of eating dog meat. Even the cheesy special effects have an endearing quality. The music conspires with the writing as well; our introduction to Bernard includes a hilarious song that is amusing even as it twists the knife ever so gently. In supporting roles, Atkinson throws in a pinch of salt as Bernard’s sneering and heartless boss while Dennis Lill’s deadpan elevator operator shows a very big heart to go with some very big lies.
Cumming and Henry really ground the film though, not only with their odd couple dynamic but also with their decency. There’s such a genuine kindness that defines Bernard and Josephus’s brief friendship and they show themselves to be wildly selfless in a world that cares little for that. It makes you wonder why we can’t all just be nicer. And right when you think they’ve delivered their message, the movie squeezes out just a little something more, about “a crap businessman but a great human being” who was Josephus’s contemporary.
Dir: Paul Weiland
Writer: Richard Curtis
Cast: Alan Cumming, Lenny Henry, Rowan Atkinson, Dennis Lill, Angie Clark, Kevin Allen, Andrée Bernard
Time: 67 min
Country: United Kingdom