Bernard and the Genie (1991)

Right off the bat, I'm going to open with a simultaneous recommendation and a warning: this bizarre, British TV movie from the early '90s is well worth checking out provided you're able to stomach the racism. Because... yeah, the movie's approach to its subject matter, while clearly intended as tongue-in-cheek, absolutely exploits both the culture it's drawing its mythology from and the race of Lenny Henry, who plays the genie. For what it's worth, the movie's portrayal of race is good-natured and well intentioned, with the movie ultimately existing in part as an endorsement of diversity and immigration, but the subtext of a black immigrant being weird and silly by virtue of not understanding British customs is absolutely baked into the premise. I doubt it was a coincidence that the remake flipped the races of both the genie and Bernard (and, for what it's worth, the cast of the remake was one of its best assets).

And speaking of the remake...

I'm going to be talking a bit about that here, as well, despite just reviewing it separately. I think the original sheds some additional light on the new movie, and vice versa. While watching the remake, I was struck by how misplaced the tone seemed to be - I kept thinking the material would work better in a world less constrained by realism.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Paul Weiland seems to have concluded the same thing when directing the 1991 version. Tonally and conceptually, this is more comedic and - at times - expressionistic. Shots are framed through exaggerated angles, events feel larger than life, and consequences are less important than growth. The movie feels as though it's written and shot to create the sensation that the events you're seeing reflect the way reality feels, rather than trying to capture reality itself.

My other main issue with the remake concerned how Bernard's character was written. The script felt out of touch to me; I simply couldn't sympathize with the character under those circumstances. And once again, it seems to be another case where the remake created a problem the original had already fixed. In both versions, Bernard is written without much of a personality, but in the original, there's a good reason for that approach. Because the world around him is so heightened, here he feels like a stand-in for the audience, an everyman whose anxiety mirrors our own.

It also helps that his journey is an internal one. The movie is largely the story of him becoming a better person. He deals with a breakup in a (mostly) healthy manner and likewise overcomes the loss of his career. This is a movie about a man dealing with anxiety, which is easy to relate to. While the remake tried centering itself around his internal development, it failed to sell his initial flaw. Because of this, our attention was always fixated more on his external obstacles and goals, and the story it built around those just wasn't compelling.

So. Let's actually talk about the plot of the 1991 movie I'm ostensibly reviewing here. The movie opens with a prologue providing an origin for Josephus, who was cursed to spend eternity in a lamp after accidentally killing a sorcerer's daughter in a knife juggling performance. We then jump ahead to meet Bernard (played by Alan Cumming), who briefly seems to be king of the world until his boss (Rowan Atkinson) fires him for the crime of promising to pay some elderly women a fair price for some unexpectedly valuable paintings.

Immediately after this occurs, he's informed by his girlfriend and his best friend that they've been having an affair and are moving in together. Virtually the only thing she leaves him is an old lamp, which (of course) contains the aforementioned genie, Josephus. Initially, the genie tries to kill him, likely hoping to avoid having to serve anyone. But Bernard luckily wishes for the genie to be able to speak English and soon after for him to stop trying to murder him. The two are soon friends - Bernard shows Josephus the modern world, and Josephus helps him loosen up and have fun.

As in the remake, they use their power to give kids visiting a mall Santa whatever they want, and Bernard wishes for the Mona Lisa. The former introduces him to a woman he's attracted to working as a helper, and the latter - of course - eventually gets him arrested: his former boss rats him out after breaking in to steal a list of potential clients. This goes even more poorly for Bernard here than in the original because he mistakes the police for intruders, then attacks and mortally wounds one with Josephus's scimitar.

After some time in jail, the police eventually catch Josephus, as well, and lock him up with Bernard, who wishes that Josephus had been with him when he originally arrived at the apartment. And that causes them to time travel back to the event, now together. Bernard simply wishes the painting away, regains the list his boss was trying to steal, and hugs the police officer he'd killed in the alternate timeline.

At Christmas, the two spend the day together, then Bernard grants Josephus's request and wishes him back to his own time. Before leaving, Josephus gives him a ticket to see Santa, nudging him to talk to the woman working there he liked.

Aside from a brief stinger about Josephus placating the man about to curse him with some merchandise he brought back with him, that's basically the story. Notably, the holiday elements here are superficially all but identical to how they'd appear in the remake but - because the context is so different - they take on a wildly different meaning. A conversation about Jesus (who'd been a friend of the genie's in both versions) appears almost verbatim in the remake, but in the new movie, it doesn't land with the same sincerity in its critique of commercialism, greed, and arguably capitalism in general (this is virtually the only aspect in which the tone of this version is more sincere).

The primary use of Christmas, of course, remained comedic, with the caveat that it was a lot funnier in this version. The sequence with the kids visiting Santa was much more enjoyable and effective, feeling more like a moment of growth for the character. It also allowed for an ambiguously shocking moment where the movie left things a bit open-ended around whether one of the kids used their wish to harm a younger sibling (we're told it was just a warning, though we never actually see the kid in question). This also managed a delightful cameo from Leonardo of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with David Forman reprising the role from the 1990 live-action film, if IMDB's credits are to be believed.

One traditional element of Christmas entertainment less featured is the alternate timeline. While the trope is utilized a handful of times around the stolen Mona Lisa painting and more straightforward time travel returns Josephus to his home, it doesn't really fit the Christmas Carol/It's a Wonderful Life template the way the remake's conclusion does. That's not a complaint - I far prefer the ending of this version - just an observation.

I really can't stress how much better the original works compared with the new film. While I enjoyed Melissa McCarthy's performance and appreciate the effort that went into addressing the racist aspects of the original (though exploiting the concept of djinn as a joke still isn't ideal), the 2023 remake works against itself by actively sabotaging the strengths inherent in the premise. The original, on the other hand, gleefully embraces the madcap energy and weirdness necessary to make a story like this come alive. Throw in some delightfully ridiculous original songs that remind me of those from Deadpool 2, and you've got something special.

Assuming the stereotypes aren't a dealbreaker, this one's worth tracking down. I suspect it'd be even better if you don't make the mistake of watching the remake first, as that spoils most of the genie's best lines. But even knowing those in advance, I still found this delightful.