A film review by Craig J. Koban April 16, 2011

ARTHUR j
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2011, PG-13, 110 mins.

 

Arthur: Russell Brand / Hobson: Helen Mirren / Naomi: Greta Gerwig / Susan Jennifer Garner / Vivienne: Geraldine James

Directed by Jason Winer / Screenplay by Peter Baynham, based on the film written and directed by Steve Gordon.

The original 1981 ARTHUR with Dudley Moore is so permanently engrained in my subconscious that the thought of remaking is akin to sacrilege.   The miracle of the multi-Oscar nominated comedy was that it was an infectious laugh riot built around the antics of a debilitating alcoholic that, despite his chronic self-medication with booze, was rendered so unconditionally loveable.  The dramatic and comic pathos of the late Steve Gordon film was that Arthur used intoxication to mask his loneliness and disillusionment: semi-estranged from his family and with no real friends in the world outside of his lifelong butler and a string of one-night stands with floozies, Arthur wanted real love.   

I have seen ARTHUR so many times I’ve lost track over the years: perhaps 50, perhaps more.  If you exclude some of the early Mel Brooks and Zucker Brothers/Abraham films, ARTHUR is one of the funniest screen comedies that I’ve seen.  Perhaps my adoration of it comes from how exemplary it combines so many disparaging elements: it’s a farce, a romantic and social comedy of errors and manners, a rumination on class relationships, a tender father/son story, and a morality tale on the human condition.  But, yes, it was side-splittingly hysterical, thanks largely to the iconic comic performance provided by Dudley Moore in his career high film.  To me, trying to find a modern day replacement for Moore for the purposes of a remake seems as foolhardy and misguided as, say, attempting to redo THE PINK PANTHER and re-capture Peter Sellers' once-in-a-generation genius.  Whoops…they did the latter already...twice! 

All of this clearly brings me to the new ARTHUR, which at least follows one tenant I have regarding how to make a successful remake: it holds the original in high esteem and pays tribute to it without senselessly copying it.  The faithfulness to the original’s storyline is largely intact (we still have a frequently inebriated billionaire playboy vying for the love of a lower-middle class woman while his family conspires to force him to marry into another rich family, or face being financially cut off for good).   Like the original, the title character’s only true and meaningful relationship is that with his butler (or in this remake's case, nanny, with the genders being reversed).  And, yes, Arthur is still a pathetic drunk, but the ’81 version played up his alcoholism for amusement, whereas now it’s seen more a distracting social disease.    

Moore’s replacement this go-around is Russell Brand, who plays this version of Arthur Bach more as a self-servingly bratty and whiny manchild and less as a pathetic and empathetic lost soul as Moore delicately laid out.  Brand’s Arthur is so filthy rich and so childish in his outlook that – during the film’s opening sequence – he dresses up as Batman and crashes one of the film’s Batmobile prop cars in the middle of a city street.  Always getting into trouble with the law and frequently being filmed by news cameras during his most obscene of spending and drinking habits, Arthur is the black sheep of his family.  His mother, Vivienne (the very good Geraldine James) has completely had it with her insolent son, so she gives him a stern ultimatum: either he marries a very wealthy and career minded heiress, Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner, juicily playing against her nice-girl-next-door type) or he will lose his entire fortune.   

Arthur detests the idea of marrying a woman he does not love, but his love of money and his promiscuously free wheeling lifestyle is even greater.  He begrudgingly aggress to the arranged marriage, but just as in the ’81 version, he gets seriously derailed when he meets a tour guide and aspiring writer (waitress and aspiring actress in the original) named Naomi (Greta Gerwig, a lovely and naturally beautiful presence) and he becomes instantly smitten with her.  Arthur’s nanny, Hobson (Helen Mirren, with the film’s second unenviable task of playing up to the original’s second iconic performance by John Gielgud) thinks that Naomi is only after Arthur’s money, but her opinions change the more time she spends with her and the happier she sees Arthur when he’s in her presence.  The real dilemma for Arthur, though, is that he has to decide whether he can live a life of sober poverty with the woman he adores or live the drunken and affluent lifestyle he’s already accustomed to with a woman he detests. 

Aside from a few key gender reversals in casting (Arthur’s key parental figure and Hobson), the storyline to ARTHUR-redux is a near carbon copy of its antecedent in terms of its plot setup, turning points, and conclusion.  There are some refreshing changes, as is the case with the character of Susan, who more or less – to be fair – was more of a plot device than a realized character in the original.  This time she is a bit more developed, and Jennifer Garner has a field day in her off-centered casting as an icy bitch-in-heels control freak that will stop at nothing to get Arthur to pop the question.  In the original it appeared that Susan perhaps cared for Moore’s playboy, but here it’s abundantly clear that her motives are more monstrously financial.  Just watch how Garner, in the film’s best scene, coerces Arthur into a wedding proposal: she is anything but a lady.  Even Susan's father, Burt, is also more unhealthily antagonistic this go around.  As portrayed by the gravel voiced Nick Nolte, he's basically a one-note sociopath/parent hell bent on protecting his daughter's interests. 

I just wished, though, that this new ARTHUR had more new things to say about this story.   Take, for instance, the recent economic depression that has beset North America for the past few years, which could have been an element that hammered home the inherent economic and social inequalities that are a part of the character’s interactions in the film.  Not only that, but Arthur’s wild and uninhibited spending habits where he throws caution to the wind at every turn seems almost vulgar with our recent recession woes.  It makes the character come off as even more pitifully self-involved.  Anyone familiar with the original will not be surprised by how the new incarnation ends, but consider this: What if, for instance, the film was daring and interesting and actually concluded with Arthur succumbing to poverty.   

Russell Brand is perhaps the best and worst thing in this ARTHUR-redo.  In his past superlative comic performances in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL and GET HIM TO THE GREEK he was hysterically playing an egomaniacally narcissist and fanatically self-aggrandizing rock star.  With his long and sinewy black mane of hair, gangly frame, and perverse and fast talking Brit wit, Brand emerged as an off-kilter surprise.    His take on Arthur is one designed to please audiences, perhaps too strenuously so:  For as frequently amusing as he is in key moments, his Arthur is more obnoxiously immature and perpetually insensitive than Moore’s lauded portrayal.   Moore’s Arthur was a spoiled and entitled elitist, to be sure, but he also was capable of innate charm and had an inquisitively sensitive heart.  In this film you are kind of left wondering how Brand’s rich miscreant ever attracted a soul so innocent and kind as Gerwig’s Naomi.   

Brand is limitlessly talented and droll, but he is much better suited to playing comedic supporting roles that allow him to harness their scathing sarcasm and insufferable insensitivity.  That’s not to say that he’s not funny in ARTHUR, which would be dishonest of me: He’s side-splitting during one moment at an auction where he bids “20,000 of money!” or, in one dry bit, responds to accusations of being a buffoon by deadpanning, “I don’t consider it to be idiocy, but a savantish gift for defying death with fun.”  I also liked how he capriciously orders a drink during one moment: “A cauldron of tequila and a spoon, please.”  There are individual moments that stand out, but Brand is not leading man material, nor is he as innately endearing of a soul a Moore.  This film needs an actor that can believably bridge the gap between caustic selfishness and wounded vulnerability.  Consider, if you will, what a Ricky Gervais could have done for this film? 

It’s kind of funny how uniformly talented the cast is here with the likes of Brand, Garner, Gerwig, and Mirren, the latter who is thanklessly and enjoyably pithy as Hobson, even though the shadow of Gielgud’s authoritative and pitch-perfectly acid-tongued performance looms almost too large.  The cast is game, the intentions are honorable (the affection for the original comes through here) and the film is modestly funny and warm hearted.  Yet, this ARTHUR seems more like it’s lazily and perfunctorily riffing on its predecessor more than it should.  It emerges as a pleasant diversion for those not familiar with Moore’s incarnation, but for those obsessive devotees of one of the classic screen comedies of the last 30-plus years, this ARTHUR remake feels largely like an unnecessary and trivial copy.  Bearing in mind the quality and status of the first film, how could it not? 

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