Russell Brand gets another chance after the relative letdown of last year’s “Get Him To the Greek” in an uninspired remake of the 1981 hit “Arthur.” No doubt Brand desperately wants to please us—he’s even willing, in this case, to run down busy Queens streets in broad daylight in nothing but blue underwear—but he has nowhere near the charm of the original’s Dudley Moore. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for that film, Moore lost out to Henry Fonda for “On Golden Pond.” There will be no nomination for Brand’s Arthur.
This reboot does not stray far from the first “Arthur,” although it is slightly naughtier, given the thirty years that have passed between versions. Helen Mirren takes John Gielgud’s place as Arthur’s paid protector, Hobson, shifting the dynamics with a surrogate mother instead of a surrogate father.
The major plot points have not been altered by Jared Stern and Peter Baynham’s plodding screenplay, which does not aim to surprise like Baynham’s work on Sacha Baron Cohen’s hits “Borat!” (2006) and “Bruno” (2009). This is the same old story of how Arthur—alcoholic, filthy rich, a man-child—finds true love in the face of an impending arranged marriage and finally turns his life around.
This new version does not find any way to take advantage of the ongoing recession to make the story timelier and winds up as a result with an out-of-touch vibe. At a time when the world of the wealthy is more than ever associated with evil incarnate, what can make us care about the mental and romantic health of the ultimate Richie Rich—who could care less about any of us?
Things are wobbly from the start in this 2011 model of “Arthur.” The opening sequence, in which Arthur and his driver and buddy, Bitterman (Luis Guzman), dress up as Batman and Robin, and crash a Batmobile into the Wall Street Bull, falls totally flat.
It is clear right away that Brand is not nailing the part: his Arthur often has a high-pitched, silly voice that takes much getting used to. His entire performance, even the way he moves, is overly mannered, suggesting that Brand never felt that comfortable in Arthur’s shoes, never could make the role his own.
As before, Arthur spends his days drinking and playing—mostly with young ladies, some of them prostitutes—while being patiently watched over by his Hobson. Knowing what we now know, Hobson looks like a classic enabler to Arthur’s rather severe alcoholism.
The relationship worked in the original film—and Gielgud won Best Supporting Actor—but it turns out to be much harder to swallow thirty years later. Why would Mirren’s Hobson, a wise and fiercely intelligent presence, put up with so much from Arthur for so long, meanwhile feeding his disease?
Arthur’s uber businesswoman of a mother (Geraldine James) actually seems to have a much healthier relationship with him, although they can barely talk. Mom has had it with her son’s antics and makes him an offer he cannot refuse: marry the society gal of her choice (Jennifer Garner) or say bye-bye to that allowance and inheritance.
The big complication is that Arthur then meets and falls for Naomi (Greta Gerwig), a working-class girl who leads tours of Grand Central Station and dreams of writing children’s books. She is everything his scarily ambitious fiancée is not and the one person who may be able to turn him into a real human being—if he can just lay off that booze for a bit. Gerwig is a mumblecore graduate and tragically miscast here. There is no spark between her and Brand. Every time they are alone onscreen together, trying to work out their relationship, the movie hits the snooze button.
How did it happen that Warner Bros. turned over this property to first-time director Jason Winer? He just has no idea of what to do with Brand and Gerwig and the rest of the promising cast, especially heavyweight Mirren, who makes the most of what she has been given but surely could have better spent her time elsewhere.
Nick Nolte, a once-great actor who has not had a notable role since “Hotel Rwanda” (2004), pops up in a disastrous cameo as Garner’s tough-guy dad. This movie is definitely not going to do anything to stop his career from continuing to drown.
And there is nothing to save this movie from sinking as it enters its final stretch. By the time Arthur starts trying to get a job to prove he can stand on his own two feet, we are wondering when this “Arthur” is ever going to end.
Winer asks us too many times to believe that Arthur is unknowledgeable of almost anything in the world around him. He lives in New York but has never heard of Grand Central Station? He has no idea how to make a cup of tea?
It is supposed to be funny, but it is numbing instead.
Add to that a sprinkling of racist jokes and a parody of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and we have a pretty unpleasant film all around. There is one funny scene at the end with Arthur and his girlfriend and some cute kids, but it comes way too late to make a difference. This is another one that did not need to be remade—at least, not like this.
Arthur Bach – Russell Brand
Hobson – Helen Mirren
Naomi Quinn – Greta Gerwig
Susan Johnson – Jennifer Garner
Vivienne Bach – Geraldine James
Bitterman – Luis Guzman
Burt Johnson – Nick Nolte
A Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Directed by Jason Winer.
Written by Jared Stern and Peter Baynham.
Produced by Chris Bender, Russell Brand, Michael Tadross, Larry Brezner, Kevin McCormick, and J.C. Spink.
Cinematography, Uta Briesewitz.
Editing, Brent White.
Original music, Theodore Shapiro, Mark Ronson.
Running time: 110 minutes.