April 7, 2011

ARTHUR: 12-Step Programmer

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Watch It At Home.
Were the executives at Warner Bros so desperate to be in business with Russell Brand that they huddled together in a conference room one day, frantically going through their library titles in search of alcoholic lead roles he could play?  (“Days of Wine and Roses… a little dark.  Clean and Sober… no, that’s coke–too edgy.  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff… not quite yet.”)  The new remake of ARTHUR only exists because playing drunks is what Brand does; it’s not as though they were going to make the picture with Lindsay Lohan if he turned it down (although that might have been a more interesting movie). 
Even in 1981, Arthur was an anachronism, a throwback to the screwball comedies of the Depression era in which very rich people often lost their dignity but never their wit.  It was an enormous hit–$95M in the US alone, and those were 1981 dollars–and was the only film written and directed by Steve Gordon, who died just a year later at the tragically young age of 43.  (He was long gone in 1988 when the dreadful sequel Arthur On the Rocks came and went.)   It provided Dudley Moore with his signature role and John Gielgud with a lifetime achievement Oscar, as well as winning another for the inescapable Christopher Cross song.  
Both the original and the remake tell the same basic story:  Arthur is a not-so-young man born to a huge family fortune; he’s spent his entire life drinking and carousing, chronically irresponsible but also, at the core, utterly likable.  His family pushes him to marry an equally wealthy woman, and it’s just then that he meets the poor girl of his dreams, forcing him finally to grow up.  In the new version, there are some notable gender switches:  the butler who’s cared for Arthur all his life (Gielgud) is now a nanny (Helen Mirren), and the parent

forcing Arthur into marriage is likewise his mother rather than his father.  A few supporting characters have been dropped, like Arthur’s grandmother and the poorer girl’s dad. The role of Arthur’s enforced fiancee (Jill Eikenberry before, now Jennifer Garner) has been greatly expanded–she didn’t even enter the original film until the halfway point–presumably to make the role appealing to someone of Garner’s stature.  And some concession has been made to political correctness, as Arthur now eventually has to attend AA meetings as the price for being gleefully drunk, and even tries to work for a living when he decides to give up his fortune for love.

None of these changes are necessarily damaging in Peter Baynham’s script.  But comedy is a fragile thing, and under the direction of Jason Winer (a TV veteran whose credits include the terrific pilot for “Modern Family”), the new film doesn’t capture the fizz or charm of the original.  In 1981, the comedy was founded on classic New York verbal wit, and marvelous supporting players showed up in practically every scene (when Arthur buys some flowers, the florist is Lou Jacobi).  The love of Arthur’s life was Liza Minnelli’s Linda, a fast-talker not above shoplifting; she’s transformed into Greta Gerwig’s Naomi, who’s been made idealistic and salt-of-the-earth (the police cite her only because she gives unauthorized, sentimental tours of the city), draining her of all humor.  Gerwig deserves better:  she comes from the mumblecore school of improvisational film and was the best thing in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg; here she mostly looks puzzled.   Mirren is, as always, impeccable, and she has better chemistry with Brand than either Gerwig or Garner, but she isn’t permitted to be the implacable snob that Gielgud was, and softening the character dulls the movie out.  Garner’s been given a lot of not particularly funny broad humor (in an odd shift, the original Arthur loved horses, while here Garner forces a terrified Brand to ride with her), and Nick Nolte as her bullying father (Stephen Elliott in 1981) is close to embarrassing.
But of course Arthur is all about Arthur, and the film rests on that actor’s back.  Dudley Moore’s performance was dotted with lovely grace notes and superb physical comedy; the delicate way he balanced a glass of Scotch on a rounded car bumper and checked if it was safe is a lesson in off-hand balletics.  Brand is essentially doing a PG13 version of the same guy he played in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him To the Greek (he’s in danger of turning into Foster Brooks), and even though he gets his laughs, there’s not a single surprising moment in his performance.  Worse, we never believe in the soulful innocence of his Arthur underneath it all–he just seems cynical and flip.  Brand gives us the TMZ version of Arthur.
A great comic structure is no small thing, and Arthur is far from unpleasant to watch, particularly when Mirren and Brand play off one another.  It’s a decent enough piece of studio entertainment.  This time, though, too much gets in the way between the moon and New York City. 

(ARTHUR – 110 min. – Warners – PG 13 – Director:  Jason Winer – Script:  Peter Baynham – Cast:  Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Garner, Nick Nolte – Wide Release)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."