Watered-down ‘Arthur’: Brand, Mirren blend to help remake go down easier
The new remake of “Arthur’’ is a thin copy of the 1981 original. But it has a few things going for it. Russell Brand, for instance, makes his best case for himself as a suitable alternative to the dude-ification of American comedy. Brand lands his blows by pretending to have no idea how to box. He gets that he’s amusing but doesn’t feel the need to rub our noses in it with mania or lavish physical antics. In that sense, he’s old funny.
Arthur is a filthy rich, alcoholic Englishman New Yorker who passes his time spending money and carousing, often despite the ministrations of his nanny, a stern Brit named Hobson, whom Helen Mirren plays with a blend of cashmere and steel, something else the movie has in its favor. She and Brand share a rapport that feels true enough to skirt the glacial pacing and silly plot. He has no idea how much he exasperates her. They’re not nearly as good together or as surprising apart as Dudley Moore and John Gielgud, as Arthur’s butler, were in the original movie. They were Wooster and Jeeves. Brand and Mirren are Harry Potter and Dumbledore.
The story is essentially the same as it was 30 years ago, only it’s been drawn against the backdrop of megabusiness. Arthur risks losing access to his fortune unless he marries Susan (Jennifer Garner), the executive his CEO mother (Geraldine James) has selected for him. Susan is a ladder-climbing vixen who understands the opportunity at hand: It’s just another merger. He’s free to have a mistress if he chooses, and the movie offers Naomi (Greta Gerwig) as just the right girl — a quirky, unlicensed tour guide and aspiring children’s book author from Queens. (Women in the movies are never novelists anymore.)
The dialogue in Peter Baynham’s script occasionally fizzes with put-downs and cattiness. Hobson describes one of her boss’s adventures as “a safari into the pointless.’’ It’s obvious Baynham and Brand, who appears to be improvising most of his scenes, have taken care to contribute an array of snobbery that manages to have fun with anyone who’s not like him. A tourist in a sun hat is called the “Caribbean Diane Keaton.’’ From his penthouse bubble baths, Arthur aims binoculars at the street, sees two beatniks holding hands, and describes them as “the lesbian Simon and Garfunkel.’’ We are all his toys. (Evander Holyfield makes house calls, a playdate with Kanye West is on the calendar, and Luis Guzmán plays Arthur’s chauffeur and right-hand man.) Moore’s version really got a kick from being among average people. Brand’s appears to have just landed on Earth in the magnetic space bed he sleeps in. His entire performance is exposed as a fraud in a wonderful scene in which Arthur stands in a roomful of actual, pitiless children.
The comedies of the early 1980s were really reaching back to the screwball farces of the 1930s to think about how to reframe matters of class and gender and psychology of that time. Steve Gordon’s original “Arthur’’ wasn’t deep, but it had a real tender sadness. Everyone is complicit in Arthur’s self-loathing yet self-affirming drunkenness, no one more so than the audience. You didn’t want to see Moore temper his performance with sobriety. Drinking was the source of his tremendous comedic strength (it’s still a very funny one-note achievement). The prospect of him without alcohol was disillusioning, like seeing a star without her makeup.
This movie doesn’t seem to know why Arthur drinks. Only occasionally does Brand even appear to be drunk. (Nick Nolte plays Susan’s father, and, at 70, he now looks like a less than hale future Matt Damon. Nolte conducts his two scenes in the worrying condition of a far more convincing substance abuser.) Throughout, Brand’s Arthur looks ready for photo shoots, with his clear complexion, tailored suits, and neatly tended tresses. Moore often looked like his face was going to slide off his head.
Arthur’s antics — wild parties, caroming through Manhattan in a Batmobile — make investors in the family’s corporation nervous. The original movie invented Susan to join two fortunes and dry Arthur out. In the new version, the part allows Garner to play a sexual predator. Even before she’s affixed to the magnetic bottom of Arthur’s spacecraft bed in lingerie, the part doesn’t flatter her. By the end she’s a gorgon. Gerwig, meanwhile, is an original comedian who’s stuck being The Girl. Liza Minnelli played this part in the original, and there was a sparkle of thrill-seeking and gold-digging in her enormous eyes. She was as attracted to the otherness of Arthur’s class as he was attracted to hers. Naomi is too virtuous to be interesting.
You never believe a minute of the remake, which Jason Winer directed. Having Mirren play Gielgud’s part seems an even better idea than having her play Prospero in Julie Taymor’s “The Tempest.’’ But I could never accept that this tough, compassionate woman would allow a man she’s been nurturing for more than 30 years to become such a stupendous dependent. His failures would appear to be hers, and it’s hard to believe that “failure’’ exists in this nanny’s vocabulary. Would decades of her care really have produced such a drunken childish slut? The genius of Gielgud’s performance, which earned an Oscar, was that he gave enough catty self-pity. He was pitiful for sticking by Arthur for so long, and the pitifulness forged a kid of perverse affection. He’d fallen in love with Arthur. The emotional nature of Hobson’s devotion now is vague. But surely the money is good.