It’s still an open question whether in this day of increased concerns about alcoholism and health you can do a remake of 1981’s Arthur — a comedy about a lovable drunk — because the new Arthur, with Russell Brand playing the Dudley Moore role, is a mere burlesque riffing off the old Arthur, rather than an actual remake that has reconceived or rethought the original film.
The story hasn’t changed much, nor have the characters. But the comedy is now crude instead of whimsical and its characters overblown caricatures instead of screwball personalities. A movie has been reduced to a sketch.
One’s enjoyment of Arthur — and its box-office chances — might depend on having little knowledge of the earlier work. As a Russell Brand Show, fans and followers might enjoy his extravagant mugging. Those with any memory of the original will be severely disappointed.
That movie — let’s call it Old Arthur — came out of nowhere. TV veteran Steve Gordon created an ineffable, charming comedy that defied movie traditions even of that time. Comic intoxication was usually reserved for the Animal House-type comedies, and rich guys were seldom heroes. Gordon insisted that his incredibly rich and drunk protagonist was a gentle soul, looking for love but willing to accept a night of fun if that didn’t pan out.
Moore, a British import who had just hit it big as a leading man in Blake Edwards’ 10, gave Arthur a sweetness to go along with his prankster personality. It was a knowing performance, full of wit, grace and savvy observation.
Brand shares a British heritage with Moore, but his comedy is much different. The guy is a talent, no doubt. He delivered an undeniable comic jolt into Universal’s animation/live-action mix Hop. But there is edginess to Brand’s humor, even an aggressiveness. His Arthur creates scenes, not laughs. He’s a pathetic, bratty little boy who refuses to grow up, rather than a genial alcoholic who wouldn’t harm a fly.
Peter Baynham’s new script has done even more damage to the key relationship in Arthur’s life. Perhaps the filmmakers thought it was clever to turn Hobson (John Gielgud), Arthur’s fatherly butler, into a nanny (Helen Mirren) — it emphasizes Arthur’s infantilism. But unlike Gielgud’s character, Mirren’s Hobson is in constant conflict with her charge. She prods sharply where the butler steered with the gentlest of touches. Old Arthur’s butler was subtle and unflappable; Mirren’s nanny has a bit of Mary Poppins in her.
The story again centers on a billionaire parent (Geraldine James) demanding Arthur grow up enough to enter into a loveless marriage to a rich WASP (Jennifer Garner), mostly for business purposes, or he’ll be disinherited. (Here, again, the New Arthur insists on a gender change from a male to female parent.) At the same time, Arthur meets the love of his life in unlicensed Grand Central Station tour guide Naomi (Greta Gerwig).
So both Arthurs present a conventional romantic comedy about love vs. money with a predictable outcome. This humdrum story line therefore allows, or at least it should, a completely unpredictable and outlandish character to take over.
Neophyte feature director Jason Winer turns things over to Brand all right, but it’s a rough, out-of-focus performance. The movie relies on its props far too much — from an incongruous Batmobile, borrowed from a fellow Warner Bros. movie, to a magnetic floating bed — favoring showiness over comedy, brashness over subtlety.
Perhaps encouraged by these toys, Brand goes full-bore in every scene, almost as if the movie isn’t so much about a drunk as an eccentric billionaire. In fact, no one working on the New Arthur seems comfortable with this protagonist. So you get AA meetings and lines tsk-tsking over “free spending during a recession.” The film keeps throwing up PC signs to demonstrate how shocked everyone is, to borrow from Casablanca, that gambling is taking place in a casino.
Guys, your character was always going to be a profligate drunk if you remake Arthur, so get over it. (And by the way, Hobson’s admonition to Arthur to scrub his private parts to prevent disease following unprotected sex just blows your mind.)
When tragedy overtakes Arthur as Hobson falls ill, the film becomes cloying rather than touching — the bond between the man-child and his governess has never been convincingly established.
In Old Arthur, all supporting players had great moments; in New Arthur, everyone merely hits his mark. The spontaneity and gentle whimsy are missing. And so is the luxurious wit of Gordon’s original screenplay. Baynham’s script plods along without memorable lines or scenes, even when it imitates Old Arthur as closely as it can.
In the end, it isn’t so much that the New Arthur isn’t the Old Arthur. Rather, it’s the anti-Arthur.
Release date Friday, April 8 (Warner Bros.)
Cast Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner
Director Jason Winer
Producers Larry Brezner, Kevin McCormick, Chris Bender, Michael Tadross
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes