'Arthur:' Review

Warner Bros.
A muddle-headed remake of a classic screen comedy.

Russell Brand, Helen Mirren and Jennifer Garner star in Jason Winer's film about a lovable drunken billionaire playboy.

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 -- may depend on a new audience having little if any knowledge of the earlier work. As a Russell Brand Show, fans and followers may enjoy his extravagant mugging and nuttiness. Those with any memory of 1981's Arthurwill be severely disappointed.

That movie -- let's call it OldArthur -- 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 kind of comedies, and rich guys were seldom heroes. Gordon insisted that his incredibly rich anddrunk 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 and grace and savvy observation.

Brand shares a British heritage with Moore, but his comedy is much different. The guy is a talent, no doubt. Only last week, he put 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 very clever to turn Hobson (John Gielgud), Arthur's fatherly butler, into a nanny, played by Helen Mirren. It certainly does further emphasize Arthur's infantilism. But unlike Gielgud's character, Mirren's Hobson is in constant conflict with her aging charge. She prods sharply where the butler steered with the gentlest of touches. Old Arthur's butler was subtle and unflappable, while Mirren's nanny has a bit of Mary Poppins in her.

The story again revolves around 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 Arthurinsists 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 (indie film stalwart Greta Gerwig).

So both Arthurspresent a thoroughly conventional romantic-comedy about love vs. money with a predicable 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. Not helping matters, 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. These tend of underscore showiness over comedy, brashness over subtlety.

Perhaps encouraged by his props and toys, Brand goes full bore in every scene, almost as if the movie isn't so much about a drunk as an eccentric billionaire, who would be loopy if he drank only lemonade. In fact, no one working on New Arthurseems completely comfortable with this protagonist. So you get AA meetings and lines tsk-tsking over "free spending during a recession." The movie keeps throwing up PC signs along the way 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 Hobson's admonition to Arthur to scrub his private parts to prevent disease following unprotected sex just blows your mind. This is the advice of his sagacious nanny?

When tragedy overtakes Arthur as Hobson falls fatally ill, the film becomes cloying rather than touching. There's no heart in any of this as the tenacious 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 hits his marks, and that's about it. The spontaneity and gentle whimsy is missing. And so is the luxurious wit of Gordon's original screenplay. Baynham's script prods along without memorable lines or scenes even when it imitates Old Arthuras closely as it can.

In the end, it isn't so much that the New Arthurisn't the Old Arthur. Rather it's the anti-Arthur.

Opens: April 8 (Warner Bros.)
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a Kevin McCormick/MBST Entertainment/Benderspink production
Cast: Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner, Greta Gerwig, Luis Guzman, Nick Nolte, Geraldine James
Director: Jason Winer
Screenwriter: Peter Baynham
Story by: Steve Gordon
Producers: Larry Brezner, Kevin McCormick, Chris Bender, Michael Tadross
Executive producers: J.C. Spink, Scott Kroopf, Russell Brand, Nik Linnen
Director of photography: Uta Briesewitz
Production designer: Sarah Knowles
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Costume designer: Juliet Polcsa
Editor: Brent White
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes