Starring: Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner, Greta Gerwig, Nick Nolte, Geraldine James, Luiz Guzmán
Rating: PG-13, for sensuality, profanity, drug references and relentless alcohol abuse
Director Jason Winer’s most impressive accomplishment, in his remake of 1981’s “Arthur,” is keeping a lid on his star’s aggressively flamboyant tendencies.
A little bit of Russell Brand goes a VERY long way.
But Brand manages to be occasionally endearing here, as Arthur Bach: a spoiled-rotten, super-rich, arrested adolescent who never refuses an opportunity to make headlines while concocting new ways to embarrass his mother.
Vivienne (Geraldine James) runs the family corporate empire, her husband — Arthur’s father — having (wisely?) passed on when his only son was 3. Subsequently raised in a sheltered environment by an absentee single parent too frequently in the board room, Arthur has turned unrestrained hedonism into an Olympic-caliber sport, believing one cannot have too much wine, too many women (often simultaneously) or too much song.
All this is a constant source of irritation to Hobson (Helen Mirren), Arthur’s patient, long-suffering but mordantly prickly nanny. Hobson tirelessly cleans up after her charge, having done so for decades. And if this is motivated at least in part by affection, as opposed to a regular paycheck, that’s difficult to discern … initially, anyway.
Oh, yes: Arthur also drinks. Constantly. Excessively. With the intention of humorous effect.
Therein lies a problem.
The original “Arthur,” brilliantly written and directed by Steve Gordon — who died, tragically, just after the release of this, his big-screen debut — was designed as an homage to 1930s Hollywood screwball comedies, which existed in the same sort of rarefied, fantasyland atmosphere populated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance flicks.
This was an era of archetypes rarely seen in our more cynical, obnoxiously politically correct 21st century: dumb blondes, honorable cowboys, hookers with a heart of gold, and — most crucially, for our purposes — lovable drunks.
Gordon’s “Arthur” was a hit not just because of star Dudley Moore’s spot-on performance, but also because the entire film so perfectly imitated this bygone era, while ostensibly being set in the present day.
Even as Arthur fell in love with the plain, working-class woman who taught him about the value of self-reliance — an improbably cast Liza Minnelli, but hey, she made it work — Gordon was careful not to slide TOO far into the real world. The bubble would have burst.
Winer and screenwriter Peter Baynham, in their remake, exercise no such caution … and more’s the pity.
Moore’s Arthur Bach quite possibly remains the last lovable souse successfully minted by Hollywood, before alcohol awareness, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and an overall wave of stern disapproval began to leach all the fun out of our United States. No doubt seeking to address this problem, Baynham confronts Arthur’s drinking issues head-on, by inserting visits to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and a narrative epilogue — completely different than Gordon’s original resolution — that suddenly, jarringly, drags us out of Hollywood make-believe and into real-world “solutions.”
And the sound you hear is that of the bubble, bursting.
The primary story beats, until we hit that point, more or less follow Gordon’s original template. Despairing that her wastrel son never will amount to anything, and thus couldn’t be trusted to take over the Bach business empire some day, Vivienne orders Arthur into an arranged marriage with Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), a forceful and accomplished woman who’d be ideal as a rapacious CEO.
Arthur naturally resists this edict from Vivienne — whom he always calls by first name — but is threatened with total disinheritance if he balks. So he capitulates.
After which, totally by chance, he bumps into a spunky unlicensed Manhattan tour guide named Naomi (Sacramento’s own Greta Gerwig) and falls head over heels in genuine love. Naomi lives in a charming, albeit tiny apartment that shakes and clatters every time the nearby train roars past. She shares these digs with her father, a character all but written out of this remake (which is a shame, because I still have fond memories of Barney Martin’s performance in said role, in the original).
Naomi more or less succumbs to Arthur’s rather erratic charms, at first almost in self-defense, but eventually out of genuine interest and growing affection. Some of these scenes work quite well, most notably a “first date” that takes place in a surreally deserted Grand Central Station: only the two of them, a dining table and a butler bearing a tray with a most amusing main course.
The film’s best scenes, though, belong to Mirren: she of the hilariously baleful glances and superbly timed snarky asides. We can see that Hobson’s apparent contempt for Arthur is only surface deceit, but HE isn’t initially aware of that … at least, probably not on a conscious level.
But as the film continues, and Arthur struggles with his unhappy options as a result of developing genuine feelings for Naomi, Hobson allows her chilled, disapproving armor to melt away, exposing rising admiration and grudging respect. Mirren makes this transformation with marvelous subtlety; the acid-tongued one-liners never completely disappear, but the banter becomes more playful.
Brand, never to be outdone in the quick quip department, gives as good as he gets.
Garner is magnificent as a bossy, high-born bee-yatch, and she frankly blows Gerwig right off the screen. The rich fiancée was a smaller role in the original film, because Minnelli — the “name” female co-star — played the working-class “true love” role. But Garner is an established star, while Gerwig is merely rising; that mandates changes … and they’re not entirely successful.
Garner enthusiastically occupies this rarefied atmosphere with a deliciously over-the-top performance; Gerwig, in great contrast, is VERY badly directed. Nothing seems to work with her performance, starting with her underdeveloped character (Baynham’s fault) and her clumsy, tin-eared line readings (Winer’s fault).
Gerwig is capable of much better; one need look no further than her delightful, wholly natural supporting performance in the recent “No Strings Attached.”
And another thing: Both Garner and Gerwig are done no favors by make-up artist Eldo Ray Estes, whose hand is roughly 14 times too heavy. Estes applies a level of foundation and highlighting that I’d expect of a stage performance, where one wishes to be seen by folks in the nose-bleed section of the second balcony. But film is a medium of tight close-ups, and Garner and Gerwig too frequently look like little girls who’ve raided their mother’s cosmetics case, with disastrous results.
In the final analysis, then, this new “Arthur” isn’t the train wreck I feared, and in fact rises to moments of charm and affectionate delight at times. But such bright spots are overshadowed by Winer’s uneven, often clumsy handling of the material, which merely reinforces what many of us already knew: Gordon’s 1981 film isn’t a wise choice for a remake, for all sorts of reasons. And since the ONLY reason for a remake is to improve upon the original — or at least equal it — then this one must be regarded a failure.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com