What’s with the trailer and TV spots for this film? Did Warner Bros. assign some unpaid intern to stitch them together? The promos appear designed to keep the maximum number of potential audience members from actually purchasing tickets. Whereas the trend is to cram in as many of a movie’s best bits as possible, the previews for Arthur contain virtually none. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to see this picture based on them.
Certainly I expected the worst. So, imagine my surprise when the experience proved intermittently pleasurable. The world hardly needs another gratuitous Hollywood remake. If we’re to have an update of the 1981 Dudley Moore comedy, however, we could do far worse than to have director Jason Winer (“Modern Family”) and screenwriter Peter Baynham (Borat) behind the wheel. These guys could squeeze laughs out of a test pattern.
Russell Brand doesn’t so much resurrect as riff on the role of zillionaire tippler Arthur Bach. As in the original, he’s an irresponsible hedonist whose beverage of choice is never far away. Early on, he and his driver, Bitterman (Luis Guzmán), dress up as the Dynamic Duo and spend an evening carousing with coeds and screaming through the streets of Manhattan in a Batmobile. A little later, Arthur amuses himself by attending an art auction and bidding manically against himself until the work’s price tag has reached a comically astronomical level. Throughout the film, the character comes off as more childlike than Moore’s version, his actions themselves less the source of laughs than the quirky, understated dialogue that accompanies them.
As before, Arthur’s life reaches a turning point when his mother runs out of patience and threatens to withhold his inheritance ($950 million, up from the original $750) unless he gets serious about taking his place in the family business and starts by marrying a socially ambitious shrew, here played by Jennifer Garner. And, as before, the engagement coincides with Arthur meeting the working-class girl of his dreams. A vast improvement over Liza Minnelli’s waitress, indie vet Greta Gerwig costars as Naomi, an aspiring children’s writer who makes ends meet by conducting unauthorized tours of Grand Central Station.
The resolution of our hero’s romantic quandary could hardly be more predictable — or more offbeat and unexpectedly affecting. Both funny and touching, as well, is Arthur’s relationship with his handler. No one alive is going to fill John Gielgud’s shoes as Hobson, the butler who served up exquisite barbs along with glasses brimming with bourbon (he won an Oscar for the performance). But the filmmakers have done the next best thing in giving Hobson a sex change. Helen Mirren brings a convincing authority and tenderness to the part of Arthur’s nanny. The scenes in which Brand sits in his bubble bath, surveys the street below with golden binoculars and shouts notable sightings to her (“Look, it’s a male Orphan Annie — Orphan Mannie!”) border on silly brilliance.
Brand never does seem particularly drunk in this retooling. And I’m not sure that, even in these politically correct times, we needed to work AA into the story. But what are you going to do? I suppose a culture obsessed with shows about interventions and celebrities in rehab probably wouldn’t find an unrepentant lush like Moore’s as lovable as audiences did 30 years ago.
I’m also not certain the film quite establishes Brand as a leading man. A little of him goes a long way. But the Brit wit does display a greater range than he has to date, along with an occasionally subtler touch. All in all, the rebooted Arthur proves a concoction sweet, appealing and winning in ways that exceed all expectation — and I, for one, will drink to that.