Arthur [2011] (Review)

ARTHUR (4/08/11; Comedy)
Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner, Greta Gerwig, Luis Guzmán, Geraldine James, Nick Nolte
SCR: Jared Stern, Peter Baynham; based on the 1981 movie written by Steve Gordon
DIR: Jason Winer
MPAA: PG-13 for alcohol use throughout, sexual content and some drug references.
1 hour 50 mins
BOX: $39,219,065

Why remake the classic 1981 Dudley Moore comedy? Well, because Russell Brand was looking for a project to develop and someone realized it had been thirty years since Moore’s version. Brand never reaches the level of sadness that powers Moore’s over-the-top drunkenness. He’s a big kid with big toys who likes to drink a lot, but that’s where the comparison ends.

In the original, Arthur picks up a prostitute in the first scene and takes her to a fancy restaurant. Everyone remembers the line “You’re a hooker? Christ, I forgot. I thought I was just doing great with you!” But after that was an exchange that summed up Arthur’s entire being. He asks the hooker if she liked him. She tells him that he’s cute. “I know I’m cute. But do you like me?”

Alas, there is nothing that graceful here. Instead, we get Brand racing through the streets of New York in a Batmobile dressed like the Caped Crusader and devoted driver Bitterman (Guzman) dressed like Robin with his belly hanging out. It’s okay if the producers wanted to ramp up the comedy. After all, the 21st century – with its fast pace, immediate social media and obnoxious separation between the classes – is a pretty funny place. And even though contemporary touches abound – Arthur sleeps on a floating bed and watches a glass TV – this version is a lot less edgy than the original.

It’s not enough to have Arthur drink to numb himself and choose to sober up. Now he has a “drinking problem” and has to go to AA. With all due respect to anyone ever helped by Alcoholics Anonymous, why was it necessary to turn the story of an irascible playboy who yearned to be loved into a cautionary tale?

In the original, Liza Minelli’s quick-witted Linda was introduced stealing a tie for her father. Her brashness is attracted her to Arthur. Arthur falls madly in love with her and Hobson realizes that. So when his arranged marriage to the frigid Susan Johnson looks like something he can’t get out of, lest he will lose his fortune, Arthur does the right thing and stops seeing Linda.

It’s Hobson who tells Linda where the engagement party will be, and the fact that she actually shows up convinces Arthur she’s the one for him. When Arthur proclaims his love for Susan and brings her to his wedding, it’s a bold narrative choice, and the right one. The original makes a case for love over money.

In this version, Naomi (Gerwig) is a good-hearted “illegal tour guide,” who takes visitors on tours of Grand Central Station. Arthur, discovering the place for the first time, is taken with the fetching Naomi and similarly talks her out of trouble with the cops. But even as his nuptials loom and Arthur becomes increasingly verbal about his dislike of Susan, he continues to pursue Naomi. So when she finds out about his engagement, it’s a slap in the face.

Naomi is left out of the engagement party sequence (now played strictly for laughs) and has to endure further humiliation due to a contrivance that allows Susan to knock her down a few pegs. If I were Naomi, I wouldn’t want anything to do with him either.

The grand Mirren is fine but forced at times to mimic Sir Arthur Gielgud’s dialogue without the same tartness. Garner has fun as the conniving bitch Susan, but Nolte is miscast as her alpha male dad. Curiously, Brand’s Arthur is emasculated by a cast of strong women. In this version, it’s Arthur’s mother, not father, who demands the marriage. Susan Johnson is much more controlling; and Hobson is a woman. Granted, she’s played by one of the great broads of the century, Helen Mirren, but by changing the gender and softening the tough love father-son relationship that existed between Gielgud and Moore, it weakens the dynamic.

Brand’s Arthur is told on several occasions to “be a man,” while Moore’s Arthur was repeatedly told to grow up. Sexism or progress? You decide.

There is some good news for fans of the original. The iconic Christopher Cross theme is sprinkled beautifully into a magnificent new sequence in which Arthur rents Grand Central Station for an hour for a date. Also, look closely at the cars in the scene that references “famous cars from movies.” There’s Arthur’s limo from the ’81 original. The theme gets a jazzy new spin over the closing credits.

The 2011 version of Arthur may say the same things and walk the same path, but it’s not nearly as daring or funny and certainly not as touching. Occasional new sequences resonate because they feel fresh or fit better with this incarnation of Brand’s Arthur. But the movie’s shortcomings may well have more to do with shifting social mores over the past thirty years than the film itself. It’s still better than Arthur 2: On The Rocks (1988). (Warner Bros.)


Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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