2 stars (out of 4)
Time and compound interest haven’t done much for Arthur Bach’s bank account.
In the original 1981 Arthur, the permanently pissed innocent played by British comic Dudley Moore was worth $750 million. Today, Russell Brand’s rebooted Arthur rings in at $950 mil. Not much of a return for three decades.
Similarly, the retread of the 30-year-old comedy hitting theatres today with politically correct touches to tone down Arthur’s legendary boozing, and a gender switch for the butler, hasn’t made substantial gains over time either.
The original had its moments, thanks to puckish Moore as the perpetually marinated heir to his family fortune, whose giggling charms and cheerful naiveté kept him free from worldly cares.
In Brand, we now get an Arthur who disturbingly borders on mental deficiency — and a script to match.
With his squeaky voice, wide eyes and deliberate speaking style, Brand’s Arthur isn’t just boyish, he’s creepily regressed back to grade school while clutching a bourbon bottle.
Still, the long-legged bad boy of British comedy shows a facility for physical stuff and has a way with a quick quip. It just doesn’t happen as often as we’d like.
Helen Mirren, who takes to comedy with an approach a bit akin to the Queen doing stand-up, is Hobson 2.0, Arthur’s sensible, shoes-wearing nanny.
She loves her charge with Mary Poppins-esque precision, even if he does wear her patience daily. Her advice keeps him out of the gutter, jail and STD clinic.
While John Gielgud (who won an Oscar as Arthur’s butler, Hobson) was droll in his approach, the thrust and parry between employer and employee has now gotten cheekier. Gielgud’s Hobson reminded the bubble bath-lounging Arthur to wash his armpits, while Mirren’s version exhorts him to do the same — to his winky.
Mirren and Brand have the chemistry that makes for good comedy, and watching them interact is the best part of Arthur.
But like the Oscar-winning theme song from the original that sappily chirped about being caught between the moon and New York City — and is teased once during these proceedings before getting a full rendition over the closing credits — the remake is similarly caught between two worlds, trying to modernize a story that may not be able to survive an update.
Attempts to tone down Arthur’s self-destruction via the bottle feel forced. He’s still a drunk all right, but there’s no more DUI; he now he has a chauffeur (Luis Guzman has the thankless task of driving the smashed Brand around town).
Perhaps Hollywood, the land of 12 steps and interventions, now feels guilty about making us laugh at the alcoholic’s misfortune.
But drunks are funny in the movies, especially when they fall down, and Brand is at his most amusing when he’s ordering “a cauldron of tequila and a spoon,” and less so when he tries out an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with Hobson.
We’re left with a version of Arthur who follows a sobering path as our previously marinated hero trades dry martinis for sex and fancy gadgetry.
The central dilemma of Arthur remains unchanged: He must marry Susan, the society dame he can’t stand (Jennifer Garner as a rapacious overachiever equally determined to rule board room and bedroom), or his mama pulls the plug on his stake in the family fortune.
Arthur is smitten with the kooky Naomi (Greenberg’s Greta Gerwig), a big-eyed blond with a quirky wardrobe and a yen for writing children’s books. (Where original love interest Liza Minnelli was a serial shoplifter, Naomi’s big sin is sneaking into Grand Central Station to lead illegal tours. Seems we can’t have kleptomaniacs in movies anymore, either.)
The story takes a sober twist in a variety of ways in the final third as Arthur must make some difficult decisions about his life while working up the resolve to see them through on his own for the first time.
Directed by Modern Family’s Jason Winer, Arthur often seems like a comedy with a mission to redeem its reputation. But it never needed to go to rehab in the first place.
Linda Barnard is a syndicated movie critic for The Toronto Star.