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Rich man, pour man

Russell Brand reinvents the lovable drunk in 'Arthur'

By Lynda Gorov
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2011

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LOS ANGELES — Comedian Russell Brand is the living embodiment of the Nikki Giovanni line of poetry that goes, “You’re not at all what you appear to be though not so very different.’’

To wit, his hair is shellacked and ink black but not nearly as greasy in person. The trousers are embolism-inducing tight, but it turns out he’s lanky rather than lithe. His vest is foppish, but he’s full-on masculine. Brand does cram more words into a minute than almost any other man, but those words are introspective at least as often as they are unprintably hilarious. Antics aside, his manners are pure Englishman.

Of course he’s randy — “Oh damn those wedding vows,’’ he says as he hugs goodbye with Helen Mirren, plenty hot in an age-appropriate little black dress — but he’s also open about the love he’s found with pop singer Katy Perry.

Brand, 35, brings both those naughty and those butterfly feelings to his first real turn at film acting, as the eponymous lead in “Arthur’’ (opening Friday), a re-imagining as much as a remake of the original released 30 years ago. And it has to do with more than the extra 11 or so inches of height Brand brings to the role. Yes, Arthur is still an adorable drunk. But now he’s a billionaire rather than millionaire. The butler Hobson (the late great John Gielgud) has become the nanny Hobson (a dowded-down Mirren). And blowsy shoplifter Liza Minnelli as the true love interest is now blond indie darling Greta Gerwig, who runs scam tours for visitors to New York City and writes children’s books on the side.

“Yes, I think it was a real departure for me because he’s a very different kind of character to anything I’ve played before: sweet, naive, childlike, a constant sense of wonder, a prince without a kingdom,’’ Brand says. “He’s someone who has to deal with death and falling in love and fear and becoming a man.’’

Brand’s Arthur still does this surrounded by every high-tech toy serious money can buy, which this time includes a Batmobile, a bedroom solar system, and a Darth Vader mask that Mir ren wears while telling Brand to “wash your winky’’ in the dark one’s voice. There’s also an aggressive society girl (Jennifer Garner) whom Arthur has to wed or risk losing his inheritance.

But while Brand shares both a black top hat and sweet bumbling appeal with Dudley Moore, who originated the role, he and director Jason Winer were cognizant that changes had to be made. Thirty years on, societal mores won’t allow for Arthur to remain an adorable drunk but a drunk nonetheless. Gerwig’s Naomi can’t end up his willing caretaker like Minnelli’s Linda did. Technological advances also had to be acknowledged but not played for cutes.

The movie came to Winer with Brand already attached. After helming the first season of the TV hit “Modern Family,’’ Winer found a lot of scripts coming his way. But he says something about the combination of “Arthur,’’ a movie he adored as a child, and Brand was irresistible. The only question was could Brand be Arthur through to the end.

“I felt as though if one actor on Earth could reinvent Arthur for a new generation, it was Russell,’’ he said. “The question wasn’t about the comedy with Russell, because I knew he was hilarious. It was: Could he pull off the changes this character undergoes?’’

So the two had dinner. Winer walked away impressed. Brand, he says, was far more grounded and spiritual than most people know. Plus he had genuine perspective on his crazy sex-and-drug-fueled past, documented in the 2007 memoir “My Booky Wook.’’ Later, the presence of Dame Mirren would make Brand raise his game. Brand, who is a starring voice and has a live-action cameo in the newly opened “Hop,’’ also credits Winer with reining in his wilder impulses and limbs so long and loose it can appear that he has no bones. There’s nothing elfin about this Arthur.

“With a performer as dynamic as Russell, my job as a director isn’t to rein him in, it’s to set him free,’’ Winer says. “He’s one of the most amazing, hilarious, and articulate improvisers in the moment. . . . There came the moment in every scene where it was time to let Russell do his thing. My job was finding the part of that that worked when he would go off on some brilliant flight of fancy.’’

Brand isn’t one of those funny people who pretends he isn’t funny while tossing off one-liners. His take on life is instinctively absurd and yet often also dead-on. Riffing on moving from overcast England to recently rainy LA, he says of the weather, “It [double expletive] me off. It’s like lifting up the frock of a dancer and finding a hermaphrodite.’’

No big surprise that Brand says he’ll never step completely away from stand-up, which has brought him so many opportunities, from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall’’ to “Get Him to the Greek’’ to a recent hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live’’ to comedy specials where he prowls the stage like an insightful Edwardian who happens to have his chain-covered chest exposed. His routines and late-night talk show appearances are all over YouTube.

“It’s the core of what I do, and I respect it as an art form,’’ Brand says. “What other job is there where you can stand up and say, ‘This is what happened to me. I feel like this. I think this is funny,’ and people applaud you for shouting your mouth off? I love it. Film is great for the collaboration, but if I had to choose one, I’d choose stand-up.’’

Brand brings those comic impulses to everything he does and “Arthur’’ was no exception. He says he worked closely with Winer and screenwriter Peter Baynham (“Borat’’), who had his script polished by the “Modern Family’’ writers’ room. The director says his favorite ad-lib was a throwaway line when Brand as Arthur enters his mother’s super modern office and the automatic glass door goes “whoosh.’’ Brand says, “Hello, the future’s now.’’

“If you’re reading this in print, you’re like, ‘That’s not funny,’ ’ Winer says. “But seeing it, that’s sort of this wonderful childlike reaction to this moment. It tickles you and it’s one of those wrinkles that elevates the character and the comedy to hopefully something that feels more alive.’’

For his part, Brand says he focused less on the overtly funny, which comes naturally, and more on the internal Arthur. He knew he was re-creating an iconic character and one made famous by someone he calls a hero. Plus, Moore and Brand grew up near each other in Greater London, although in decidedly different eras.

“I didn’t think: How can I do this and make it my own?’’ Brand says. “I think: I’m a foot taller than Dudley and it’s a different time and a different style of film because of the script and Jason’s direction. I just concentrated on making it truthful.’’

The thought, as in Brand’s stand-up, goes on and around and on some more, but with a point. “I focused on what I can relate to — he’s playful and mischievous — and what do I have to work on — he’s a billionaire!’’

Wait, he’s not quite done yet, although he does stop to stir his espresso: “And it also happened at a time I had just fallen in love and was getting married and it’s about someone whose life is changed by love the way all our lives are changed by love, be it the love of a child or a partner or some new way of life. Love, because of its spiritual components, is one of the few phenomena that can lift us out of the humdrum conformity induced by commerce and consumerism.’’

Brand, whose former sexual exploits are the stuff of self-described legend, is so serious about the unexpected presence of Perry in his life that he’s thinking of turning down the big-screen adaptation of Broadway’s “Rock of Ages’’ with Tom Cruise and Alec Baldwin. “I don’t know,’’ he shrugs. “It’s a scheduling type of thing. Obviously I’m married and I’d like to see my wife.’’

This time, though, there’s no punch line or self-aware riposte. It’s just Brand as unintentional Arthur, caught in an updated version of old-fashioned love.

Lynda Gorov can be reached at LGorov@aol.com.

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