Want to know the difference between the two versions of “Arthur?” Just compare their first scenes. The 1981 original introduced Dudley Moore’s Arthur Bach cruising for hookers. The 2011 remake has Russell Brand’s Arthur dress up as Batman and crash an authentic “Batman Forever” Batmobile into Charging Bull and make fun of its testicles. I’m not a huge fan of the original “Arthur,” but as a film about a drunken, whoremongering hero, at least it took some chances. Moore’s Arthur was a lecherous sleaze. Brand’s Arthur is a cutesy cartoon goof.
So is his movie. Everything messy and ugly (and therefore interesting) about the old Arthur has been smoothed out in this shrewdly calculated remake. With those hints of darkness gone, Arthur becomes an overgrown boy with his toys, a lost innocent looking for the love and respect he’s never gotten from his distant mother. He doesn’t need a drink; he needs a hug. The changes make Arthur the character way more likable and “Arthur” the movie way less likable.
Here’s why. In both films we watch Arthur get drunk and act out, while his butler or nanny Hobson (John Gielgud in 1981, Helen Mirren in 2011) dryly mocks his antics. Moore’s Arthur was an asshole, so it was fun to watch him get put in his place. Brand’s Arthur is a sweeter soul, so Hobson’s insults come off as more mean-spirited. Moore’s Arthur drinks because he’s bored; Brand’s, although he doesn’t drink or act drunk nearly as often, is much more clearly an addict. Maybe it’s wasn’t exactly P.C. to have an impenitent lush as a protagonist, but it was certainly a whole lot edgier. This “Arthur” feels aimed at families and kids, right down to the title character’s love of children’s books.
Part of the problem may be Brand himself. His charm in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was rooted in the effortlessness of his performance. In “Arthur” he tries really hard to be funny, manically tossing out pratfall after dirty joke after crazy voice. A strained Russell Brand is not a funny Russell Brand, especially when he’s playing a guy like Arthur who’s three sheets to the wind and should probably be a bit more chill.
As before, Arthur’s story entails his efforts to resist an arranged marriage that will be financially advantageous for his wealthy family. Since refusing his assigned mate would mean forfeiting hundreds of millions of dollars, he’s initially willing to go along. But when he happens to meet an unlicensed New York City tour guide named Naomi (Greta Gerwig) he has to decide whether he wants to spend the rest of his life with his money or his true love.
Despite the dangerous levels of quirk foisted upon her by the screenplay — she couldn’t be a licensed tour guide? — Gerwig provides an endearing note of cutesiness as Naomi. And she has some nice chemistry with Brand, who only seems to relax when he’s on screen with her. Together they share what’s easily this “Arthur”‘s best scene: a truly romantic first date inside an empty Grand Central Station. I’m not sure how a woman who’s supposedly as poor as Naomi affords such an expensive looking wardrobe, but whatever.
Her opposite number is Jennifer Garner, who narrowly beats Luis Guzmán for the title of Actor Whose Presence in This Movie Depresses Me The Most. As Susan, the woman Arthur’s mother has chosen for him, all she has to play is pure, comic book super-villain-level evil. There’s no suspense over Arthur and Susan’s relationship; of course he doesn’t want to marry a woman who treats their marriage like a hostile takeover. As anyone who’s ever watched “Alias” can tell you, Garner is capable of so much more than this. (For the record Guzmán plays Arthur’s chauffeur and he, too, deserves a lot better.) For her part, Mirren doesn’t add much to the role of Hobson that wasn’t already there in John Gielgud’s Oscar-winning performance, but at least she looks like she’s having some fun with the material.
One curiosity of the new “Arthur” is the expanded role of women in its title character’s life. In the original movie, Arthur’s marriage was arranged by his dad, and his faithful manservant was, well, a man. Now Arthur’s fate is determined by an unfeeling mother and the manipulative Susan, not to mention a gender-flipped Hobson. Suddenly Arthur has become this pure beacon of goodness trying to break free of the conniving, money-grubbing women who control his life. Which is a little strange.
Like I said, I’m no “Arthur” fanatic, so the changes made by director Jason Winer and writer Peter Baynham to Steve Gordon’s version don’t bug me as a fan; they bug me as a moviegoer. Aside from some screwy gender politics, the new “Arthur” is bland and tired. Without Gordon’s unconventional details, the material has aged as well as an uncorked bottle of champagne.