One of the greatest hazards of remaking a film is suffering comparisons to the original. In the case of “Arthur,” Jason Winer was really asking for it. It’s one thing to remake a terrible movie or even a cult film that not everyone has seen. Only, the original “Arthur” is an Oscar winning film. Indeed, it was nominated in four categories. Regardless, somebody decided the story needed an update. And thus, “Arthur” 2011 happened. It’s not a bad remake. It’s not great either. That’s why it feels more like sanctioned plagiarism than an improvement or a tribute or whatever it is they were going for.
The core plot remains the same. Arthur (Russell Brand) is a perpetually drunk millionaire wastrel who is in danger of losing his inheritance if he doesn’t marry the woman his corporate-minded mother has chosen for him. His betrothed is Susan (Jennifer Garner), a psychotically ambitious executive at his mother’s company. Terrified of poverty, he agrees to the terms until, minutes later, he meets and falls in love with Naomi, an aspiring children’s author/amateur tour guide. He helps her avoid being arrested for the vile crime of giving a tour without a permit. (In the original it was shoplifting.) Naomi is kind, free-spirited, poor and the exact opposite of every other women in his life (save his nanny). As a man who is used to getting everything he wants, Arthur doesn’t know how to handle a conflict like this. And so he doesn’t.
Brand has one distinct advantage coming into this role: a crap load of real life experience. He did not grow up wealthy but has enjoyed lucrative success for quite some time. Brand was a national superstar in the UK long before he brought his luxurious locks and bare, gyrating torso to our shores. Being famous is a bit like being rich even if you don’t have the bank account to back it up. People still give you pretty much whatever you want. And, let’s face it; he’s clocked in enough hours inside a bottle to know what everlasting inebriation looks like. He certainly has enough personality to carry a film. Even if you’re immune to his manic charm, you have to admit he knows how to liven up the place.
But Brand’s performance is not enough to make a successful film. Nor is the presence of Helen Mirren. She’s terrific as Hobson, the gender-swapped role that won Sir John Gielgud an Academy Award the first time around. Because she’s a nanny instead of a butler, there is added warmth to her constant barbs. Brand and Mirren have a tremendous chemistry. If the film were only about their relationship, it might have been quite lovely. Unfortunately, they had to introduce a love interest. And, for some reason, they decided to go with an insipid pile of rocks to play her.
Granted, they had pretty big shoes to fill. I can’t think of any known actress, at this point in the timeline, who could replace Liza Minnelli. But the woman who temps Arthur away from a billion dollar fortune should probably be rich with charisma points. When I looked up this Greta Gerwig person, I was surprised to find I’d seen her before. She’s received critical acclaim for “Greenberg” (which I haven’t seen) and her contribution to the Mumblecore movement including “Baghead” (which I have seen). She clearly hasn’t made an impression on me. She’s not unattractive, but there’s nothing striking about her either. As for her character, Naomi, she might be the quirkiest girl in the office temp pool, but she’s not unique in relation to other New Yorkers. In fact, there is nothing very New York about Naomi at all. If she grew up in Queens, she should have some sort of accent, but her voice is devoid of any local flare. It wouldn’t be so conspicuous, if she weren’t constantly waxing nostalgic about her alleged hometown. I suspect she’s secretly a transplant from Vermont and I demand to see a birth certificate!
If you were born after 1981, you might not have any preconceived expectations for “Arthur.@ When I saw the original, I was far too young to understand it. All I took away from it at the time was that Dudley Moore laughed a lot. I mistakenly thought people were annoyed by his giggling, not his alcoholism. In Winer’s version, there’s a lot less giggling but the result is much sillier. Instead of car racing, there are car chases…in a Batmobile…and full Batman regalia (the one with the nipples). It seems like Arthur 2.0 spends a lot more time playing with toys than he does drinking and sleeping with prostitutes. If I didn’t know better, I’d think his irresponsibility isn’t so much due to alcoholism than it is the fact that he has no responsibilities.
In fact, Brand’s Arthur is a pretty lucid drunk. He delivers quick-witted lines without a hint of slurred speech. He orchestrates an epic date for Naomi, including all the tiny details of the improvised story that the two of them gave the cops. Details that even she had forgotten about. This Arthur gets things done. Nonetheless, the script spends a lot of time villainizing his drinking, even going so far as to have Hobson drag him to an AA meeting. Sure, he wakes up with strange bedfellows and a hangover, but he never gets behind the wheel of a car like Moore’s Arthur did. He never screws over his friends or does any of the horrible things you hear about on “Celebrity Rehab.” He’s admonished for frivolous spending during a recession but it’s not like he’s Bernie Madoff. He doesn’t even seem to fully grasp the concept of a recession. If ever there were a character whose drinking needed no apology, it’s Arthur bloody Bach.
Despite all the changes, there are times when screenwriter, Peter Baynham (“Borat”, “Bruno”), is very respectful (almost reverent) of the source material. If the idea behind all these modifications was to set Brand’s Arthur apart from Dudley Moore’s, why bother using the “Arthur” name at all? Why not write a whole new story about a fun-loving millionaire? That is what I find most baffling about any remake. The movie you are making already exists. No matter how much you try to make it your own, people will still compare it to the original. Who wants that kind of pressure? Apparently, a lot of people do, Russell Brand included. An Oscar-winning film, no less! I suppose we can expect a remake of “The Kids are Alright” in 30 years. Only this time, Julianne Moore’s character will have to get treatment for sex addiction.