From one perspective, the well-lubricated yet stiff-jointed 1981 comedy Arthur, the one about the millionaire Manhattan drunkard played by Dudley Moore, was ripe for a remake. It scored a huge popular success early in the Reagan era, when unexamined wealth was king. And because the movie, which harkens back to Depression-era wish-fulfillment fantasies, holds up only fitfully well a generation later, mostly in the scenes between Moore and John Gielgud (who won an Oscar as Arthur’s manservant), a remake has a fighting chance of bettering its source material.
The new Arthur, which is blobby and a bit of a mess but offers a fair number of laughs, will live or die at the box office on Russell Brand’s brand of louche comic authority and on how audiences take to it in this retro-rich-drunk context.
In the original, Moore’s alcoholic playboy fell in love with a waitress/actress/shoplifter played by Liza Minnelli. As retooled for our more sober era by screenwriter Peter Baynham, Arthur falls for a sweet, unlicensed Manhattan tour guide, played by Greta Gerwig. The title character is once again engaged to marry a more socially and financially expedient selection of human, here played as a brittle harridan by Jennifer Garner. Hobson, the “help,” has switched genders, going from Gielgud in the first version to Helen Mirren in the remake.
Are the results funny? In the margins, yes. Brand, so choice as the other man in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, is best in small doses and sloshed asides. (Ordering at a fancy restaurant: “A cauldron of tequila and a spoon, please.”) He brings a genially debauched edge to the role. Gerwig, seen lately in Greenberg and quite wonderful in her absence of guile, predictable rhythms and seeming calculation, has a way of forcing her co-stars to cut to the heart of things and keep it honest. This is handy, considering the uneven material. The writing in their introductory scenes, followed by an extravagant first date in Grand Central Station, gets awfully sticky.
Here’s where the new Arthur runs into problems sidestepped (at least according to the gross receipts) by the ’81 edition. It would be nearly unthinkable, and at the very least a dubious challenge, for a commercial romantic comedy to embrace a career alcoholic’s base line adorability in the early 21st century. Thus, director Jason Winer’s film, taken from Baynham’s script, makes a considerable deal about Arthur heading into Alcoholics Anonymous. (In Get Him to the Greek, Brand played a rougher sort of libertine dealing with similar “issues,” to use a word Mirren’s character uses.) This takes the material a few steps away from the realm of retro-screwball romance and into a more seriocomic realm. In theory, I’m for it; the first Arthur came at the very tail end of what might be called “the late Foster Brooks era,” when drunks were basically amusing rather than a societal headache. But it makes the comedy tricky. (Also, it’s weird to see aggressive product placement for Maker’s Mark in a story that ends up in AA.)
The real drawback with Winer’s film — which is nonetheless more amusing than the trailers suggest — is visual. The movie favors tight close-ups and telephoto lenses; we’re always a little too close for comfort. The movie boasts all sorts of nice faces, to be sure. But when actors try to get a little back-and-forth going, and maximize whatever banter they’re given, chop-chop close-ups and reaction shots become wearisome. Physical comedy is not this Arthur’s strong suit.
It works best, to the degree it works, when Brand, Gerwig and Mirren are allowed breathing room.
—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond:firstname.lastname@example.org