The War on Christmas is real. I have seen it. With my own eyes, I have witnessed it. People in the millions, hate in their hearts and death in their eyes, year after year, performing the same grim, cruel exorcism of the spirit of Christmas itself. I am talking, of course, about the godless monsters who watch Love Actually over the holidays and not, as both Jesus and Santa intended, scriptwriter Richard Curtis’ far superior Bernard and the Genie.
(I’ll level with you, I’ve never actually seen Love Actually. I did try, once: My mum put it on one year. I made it maybe 10 minutes before I began projectile vomiting blood and Christmas pudding onto one of her spaniels. When Chiwetel Ejiofor is in your movie and it’s still unwatchable, you know something truly evil has occurred.)
Now, it’s entirely possible that you’ve never heard of Bernard and the Genie. Hard as it may be for me to accept, there are many people, especially in America, who are entirely unfamiliar with the low budget, 67-minute, British TV movie that aired on BBC1 on the afternoon of December 23rd, 1991, and that it’s all but impossible to watch now outside of YouTube or a very shonky DVD release that was clearly ripped from the TV. I mean, I don’t understand how you haven’t discovered it regardless, but there we are.
The film follows the story of Bernard (pronounced in the comically rubbish British manner, ‘Ber-nud,’ not the pretentious-sounding American ‘Berr-nard’), who gets fired and loses his girlfriend to his shitty best mate all in a matter of hours, before promptly getting blown up and landing in the hospital with a few minor scrapes and “one severely singed testicle.” The cause of this explosion turns out to be the antique lamp he was forlornly polishing, which has unleashed an extremely hyperactive genie. Shenanigans naturally follow — including the accidental theft of the Mona Lisa and the revelation that the genie was once pals with Jesus, who he called “Big J” — and everyone eventually goes on to have a very lovely Christmas. But the plot is less the attraction here than the gags — which come thick and fast — and the performances, which are sublime.
Bernard himself is played with understated, downtrodden charm by a pre-fame Alan Cumming, all floppy hair and sad eyes and generally in desperate need of a really good cuddle. He finds himself opposite the legendary British comic Lenny Henry as the genie, who gives not so much a performance as an eruption, a wild series of grins, gurns, yelps and lots and lots of exuberant yelling. He is unhinged, excitable perfection, and Cumming knows it: He lets Henry run away with the show, as noble an onscreen sacrifice as I’ve ever seen. But Henry also invests his genie with true pathos at times, and it’s a testament to his ability that he can deliver a line as ridiculous as, “No one stir-fries rabbit droppings like my mum does,” and elicit genuine sympathy. It’s a crime that the producers of the recent Aladdin remake went with Will Smith when the tried-and-tested-as-a-wacky-genie Henry was right there. I’d even go as far as to wonder if, since this aired almost a full year before the release of the original Aladdin, perhaps Robin Williams saw it and took some notes, too.
In the third most important role is Rowan Atkinson as Bernard’s slimy boss, utilized here to his best as an utter, utter bastard. Although known globally for Mr. Bean and a handful of similarly bumbling performances in Hollywood comedies like Hot Shots: Part Deux, Atkinson has always shone brightest when playing scheming, aristocratic shitbags, and here, he reaches his final form.
Atkinson, of course, had delivered Curtis’ acidic dialogue many times before, having co-written and starred in the pair’s beloved sitcom Blackadder (with Atkinson later ceding co-writing duties to Ben Elton). A show that predated Seinfeld’s “there are no likeable characters” concept by a good seven years (albeit in a very different format), Blackadder lacks even a trace of the treacly sentimentality that would come to dominate Curtis’ cinematic output. Indeed, if you look at his first big screen hit, Four Weddings and a Funeral, you could argue that Curtis’ comedic work is divided neatly into two segments, with Blackadder and sharply satirical fare like Spitting Image and Not the Nine O’Clock News on one side, and mawkish fluff like Pirate Radio and Notting Hill on the other (fun fact: legend persists that Curtis only wrote Notting Hill to drive up the value of the house he’d just bought in the area — the bright blue exterior that leads to Hugh Grant’s character’s apartment was, in real life, the outside of Curtis’ own home).
But in reality, it’s a Venn diagram, with the center containing a single work: Bernard and the Genie. The film — and I’ll be the first to admit it — is massively sentimental. It shoehorns in every cheesy British Christmas hit you can name; it has literal Christmas wishes coming true; it has happy endings for the good guys and (in some cases, wildly disproportionate) unhappy endings for the bad. But it also has a relentless stream of jokes, both verbal and visual, and a willingness to push things into deeply unexpected territory. There is an actual scene where they murder a policeman with a scimitar, and another where one man asks another if he’d “just injected LSD into my bottom.” Bob Geldoff, Melvyn Bragg and Gary Lineker (then the captain of the English soccer team) cameo as themselves in increasingly goofy ways. At one point, during a montage of children having their dearest Christmas wishes granted, one wickedly grinning child watches as his baby sister detonates in her stroller like a tiny suicide bomber.
It’s a very deliberate balancing act of wild silliness and schmaltzy holiday feelgood vibes, one Curtis felt compelled to write after a miserable Christmas Day watching TV and seeing, one after the other, several gloomy soap operas and a murder mystery film involving a heroin overdose and a suicide (at least, that’s my recollection of the explanation Curtis gave to TV listings mag The Radio Times nearly 30 years ago). It’s that rare beast, a legitimately funny film that still has Christmas spirit shining out of its pores — a sort of tonal forerunner to Elf, with which it would make an ideal Christmas Day double-bill. (There has been talk of a Hollywood remake of Bernard and the Genie on and off for the last 20 years, but currently, it remains in development hell).
Ultimately, though, what makes Bernard and the Genie so endearing — and enduring — is that it’s a story about male friendship. A lonely man somewhere in his 30s, whose world revolves around his job and his girlfriend, suddenly finds himself completely alone when he loses both: It’s all too familiar. But here, he is saved by a brand new best friend, one who pulls him out of his reserved shell. This new friend compliments him sincerely and often. He hugs him relentlessly. There is a scene near the end where Josephus, the genie, straight up tells Bernard, “I love you.”
It’s a mainstream depiction of straight male friendship that, while played for laughs, is still years ahead of its time. Yes, there is a vague romance subplot elsewhere, involving the woman who works as the mall Santa’s assistant, but it’s not important — the relationship firmly at the center of the film is Josephus and Bernard’s, and it lovingly demonstrates the overwhelmingly positive impact a good, open friendship can have on a man’s life. It’s this that makes the film — and at risk of slipping into saccharine, Curtis-style sentimentality myself — a charming little Christmas miracle.
Meanwhile, Love Actually has, I dunno, people playing trumpets in a church or something? I have no idea, but either way, I’m begging you to retire it and somehow find a copy of Bernard and the Genie instead. It’s what Big J would have wanted.