After watching Russell Brand play an infantile drunken billionaire in the entirely unnecessary remake of 1981’s Arthur, I thought about stopping at the nearest saloon and ordering a double. A stiff drink might have washed away the taste of mediocrity that pervades a juvenile comedy that has been tweaked for a new century.
Whatever its faults, the original — which earned the estimable John Gielgud an Oscar for playing an imperious butler named Hobson — tops this silly remake in nearly every way.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
To begin with, Brand lacks even the small amounts of pathos that Dudley Moore brought to the title role, and Helen Mirren — terrific an actress as she is — can’t add the same level of dry humor that marked a Gielgud performance steeped in witty disdain.
In fairness to Mirren, it should be noted that Gielgud was given better dialog. Besides, Mirren’s playing Arthur’s nanny, not his butler. Creepy, no? A grown man with a nanny? Is it hilarious when Mirren’s Hobson tells Arthur to be sure to wash his “winky?” If you answered “yes” to that question, let’s agree never to talk dirty to each other.
Screenwriter Peter Baynham follows the same basic plot as the original. Arthur’s mother orders her Hopelessly playboy son to marry an upper crust New Yorker or be disinherited. In the original, Arthur’s father — head of a large corporation — issued the marriage ultimatum. The gender changes in Baynham’s script do little to freshen characters that weren’t exactly novel 30 years ago.
The 2011 edition of Arthur boasts a variety of additional miscalculations, not the least of which is the fact that the woman Arthur is ordered to marry (Jennifer Garner) is more appealing than the woman he falls for (Greta Gerwig), a Queens resident who conducts unauthorized guided tours at Manhattan’s Grand Central Station and who aspires to write children’s books.
Baynham and director Jason Winer try to make the movie acceptable for 2011 with a half-hearted reference to the recession and an end-of-picture resolution that finds Arthur 12-stepping his way toward sobriety. And you certainly won’t be surprised to learn that the movie refuses to take its silliness straight, mixing in a bit of sentimentality at the end.
I suppose that one’s reaction to Arthur hinges on Brand, who looks more dissolute than Moore, who had the appearance of a drunken gnome. Funny as a wanton rock star in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Brand didn’t exactly knock me out in last year’s Get Him to the Greek, and he’s even less amusing here.
In a how-the-mighty-have-fallen aside, it should be noted that Nick Nolte appears in a small role as the father of Arthur’s fianceé. Watching Nolte do this kind of thankless job made me sad, which isn’t what a movie such as Arthur is supposed to do.
And, no, I didn’t stop for that drink. I went home and streamed the original on Netflix, an activity that only confirmed what I already suspected. The remake goes nowhere.