April 10, 2011

Arthur

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Arthur

COMEDY:

United States, 2011

U.S. Release Date:

2011-04-08

Running Length:

1:50

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Profanity, Sexual Content)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Garner, Geraldine James, Luis Guzman, Nick Nolte

Director:

Jason Winer

Screenplay:

Peter Baynham, based on the story by Steve Gordon

Cinematography:

Uta Briesewitz

Music:

Theodore Shapiro

U.S. Distributor:

Warner Brothers

Subtitles:

none


It's amazing how a lifeless, pointless remake can provoke pangs of nostalgia about a mediocre movie. Such is the case with Arthur. The kindest thoughts I have ever experienced about the 1981 original occurred while I was watching Russell Brand and Helen Mirren re-shape roles defined by Dudley Moore and John Gielgud. The elements that made the original Arthur tolerable are largely absent here. In its broad strokes, the 2011 Arthur is surprisingly faithful to its predecessor, but the differences, like the devil, are in the details.

The biggest problem relates to the laugh quotient. Arthur is meant to be a comedy but, for the most part, it isn't funny. Dudley Moore's version fell short of a laugh-riot, but at least there was a stream of well-earned chuckles. Not here. The first problem, which manifests itself more forcefully in this iteration, is having a "funny drunk" as the main character. Alcoholics are like clowns. To some, they're hilarious. To others, they're creepy. Arthur, with his self-destructive and mean-spirited tendencies, is closer to the latter than the former. His antics are more apt to generate cringes than laughter. For the 2011 Arthur to work, a full re-imagination of the character was in order, not merely a re-casting with a less likable actor.

Arthur Bach (Rusell Brand) is a playboy's playboy. With a net value approaching one billion dollars, he can afford to throw away money and spend his nights and days drinking, sleeping with women, and making an ass of himself. After one escapade (masquerading as Batman in a working Batmobile), his mother, Vivienne (Geraldine James), has had enough. She issues an ultimatum: he will marry a wealthy heiress, Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), or be cut off from his fortune. Despite Arthur's qualms about marrying as a business arrangement, he is too attached to his desultory lifestyle to lose the money, so he agrees. Of course, it's at this point when Arthur falls in love. The object of his affection is a tour guide and would-be writer named Naomi (Greta Gerwig). At first, Arthur's former nanny and current confidante, Hobson (Helen Mirren), believes Naomi to be a gold digger. Once she gets to know the girl, however, she changes her mind and begins to do what she can to champion the match. But Arthur has too weak a character to stay away from the bottle or end the engagement to Susan, and when Naomi learns the truth, she is understandably stricken.

When Dudley Moore played the role three decades ago, he brought a feckless charm and naiveté to his portrayal. The same cannot be said of Russell Brand, whose interpretation is that of a one-note, whining drunk. In fact, Brand's Arthur is not much different from the characters he played in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, except in neither case was Brand saddled with the responsibility of carrying the movie. He can be funny, but less is more. Taken in small quantities, Brand can be an asset. Arthur illustrates what happens in the case of an overdose. Call the poison control hotline.

The decision to hire Helen Mirren reflects the reasoning why an outrageous sum of money was paid to bring John Gielgud on board in 1981 - to have a respected and serious actor playing the ultimate straight man. There are two issues with the choice of Mirren. First, she lacks the starch with which Gielgud infused the role. She emotes too much and shows emotional reserves; the absence of these qualities won her predecessor the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Secondly, the "stunt casting" aspect of the ultra-classy Mirren slumming has already been done - after Red, it has lost some of its zing.

The real problem with Arthur is that it's too like the original for comparisons to be avoided. Had the filmmakers breathed new life into the entirety of it, as they do with the opening Batman-themed scene, it could have stood on its own merits. The decision to play an instrumental version of "Best That You Can Do" during a romantic interlude forcefully recalls the 1981 production to the 2011 edition's detriment. The remake of Arthur needs something to mark it as more than a retread, but there's nothing. A few amusing one-liners aside, the comedy is forced and mostly unfunny. Brand tries too hard. Mirren lacks the expected edge. There's no chemistry between Brand and mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig (who, it must be admitted, is an improvement over Liza Minnelli). And the script tracks the source material too closely to offer anything fresh to viewers familiar with the Dudley Moore interpretation.

The decision to helm an extraneous remake is a curious choice for TV director Jason Winer. This isn't the kind of project to get him noticed, although maybe it pays the bills. For Russell Brand, it's an indictment of his ability to carry a movie. In the Coen Brothers' recent True Grit, Jeff Bridges allowed us to forget about John Wayne, at least for a couple of hours. Here, sadly, the more we watch Brand illustrate how he is not the perfect choice to play Arthur, the more we think about Dudley Moore. That's not what anyone wants, least of all the paying customers who would be well advised to use Netflix's streaming video feature and watch the original.

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