19 April 2011
2011, 110mins, 12
Director: Jason Winer
Writer: Peter Baynham
Cast includes: Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Garner, Nick Nolte
UK Release Date: 22nd April 2011
In retrospect 1981’s “Arthur” was hardly a classic, merely a box-office success that oozed moderate amounts of charm. A solid cast of performers (namely Dudley Moore and John Gielgud) sailed the film into agreeable comedic waters, leaving audiences fairly amused and feeling good. This 2011 remake achieves more or less exactly the same thing, delivering a sporadically funny but consistently charismatic story about a millionaire playboy who needs to grow up. Stepping into the title role is roughish funnyman Russell Brand, with able support being afforded by Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Garner and the ever watchable Helen Mirren. Much like its predecessor, this new version of “Arthur” can’t claim to be revelatory cinema, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining.
Arthur (Russell Brand) is an immature and reckless lout, a disgrace to his loved ones, and a growing problem for the development of his family’s company. His life is devoted to women, fancy trinkets and vast amounts of booze, always leaving his beloved nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren) to clean up his substantial messes. After one particularly stupid act of public vandalism, Arthur’s family declares they’ve had enough, issuing the childish rascal with an ultimatum. Either he agrees to marry strong and savvy businesswoman Susan (Jennifer Garner), or his substantial inheritance becomes forfeit. Complicating matters further is a chance meeting with a delightful tour guide named Naomi (Greta Gerwig), an unassuming working class girl with whom Arthur promptly falls in love. Arthurs is left torn, does he pursue years of miserable luxury with Susan, or join Naomi, thusly abandoning his lavish lifestyle.
The casting in “Arthur” is pitch perfect, the filmmakers having seemingly achieved the impossible by effectively replacing the 1981 feature’s various icons. Brand steps confidently into Moore’s shoes, never deviating massively from the previous incarnation, but rather bringing identical appeal to the part. Brand convinces (rather unsurprisingly) as a drunken bachelor, filling up every scene of the picture with his larger than life persona. He undisputedly nails the comic aspects, but also doses the character with a respectable measure of humanity. At times the actor threatens to push his portrayal into caricature, but more often than not reigns in his wilder tendencies, allowing Arthur to appear not just as a cartoon, but rather as a well rounded person. Mirren brings the same snarky pathos to Hobson that Gielgud did, bonding believably with Brand in the process. Garner’s tyrannical Susan is afforded much more screen time in the 2011 version, the actress utilizing the added exposure to prime the tale with a few extra giggles. It’s a knowingly overblown turn, expertly judged by the now seasoned Garner. Gerwig is also fine, although her respective arc feels a little more notably fumbled by the creative team.
The story is very similar, even some of the original’s better gags have been recycled for the enjoyment of novices. Screenwriter Peter Baynham isn’t afraid to bring in some fresh ideas though, restructuring certain subplots to allow the narrative to unfold more organically. It’s a nice touch, allowing the “Arthur” of 2011 to feel like a more naturally cinematic gambit than in 1981. The jokes are generally quite decent, with some of the newer tomfoolery finding more traction than the dusty recalls to the Dudley Moore days. I’m sure the filmmakers would cutely refer to this as “celebrating” the 1981 movie’s legacy, but I just call it laziness. When “Arthur” attempts to distance itself as a remake, and brings its own comedic groove to the table, it generally succeeds; Byanham’s witty dialogue and Brand’s game performance infusing the project with an appropriately cheeky tone.
The two key emotional anchors the film offers are Arthur’s relationship with Hobson, and his romance with Naomi. The former is executed very proficiently, although the latter is barely tolerable. Brand and Mirren have an intriguingly strong connection, allowing this component of “Arthur” to reach a resonant and affecting conclusion. On the other hand the love story never quite floats, an overwhelming portion of sentimental pandering wounding its ability to enthrall. Gerwig’s infectious niceness revives proceedings slightly, but her chemistry with Brand can’t match Mirren’s. It’s ample, but also pretty flat in spots. This picture’s viewpoint on alcoholism is also much more sobering, painting it as a nasty disease, rather than a license to permanently act like a disheveled clown. I’m not sure which is preferable (there were some inspired sequences of inebriation in the original), but the 2011 path is infinitely more noble.
“Arthur” marks the directorial debut of Jason Winer, and it’s not a bad first go by any means. The editing feels a little sloppy in parts, but Winer at least maintains a healthy momentum, pumping chuckles and well timed sight gags into the film skillfully. He appears somewhat more uncertain when “Arthur” moves away from the realm of comedy, but that’s largely to be expected from a filmmaker more versed in television. Thankfully the actors are on hand to spare him too many blushes, whilst Baynham’s screenplay distracts from some of the less technically polished elements.
“Arthur” is definitely funnier than most studio comedies (I’d certainly recommend it over the recently released “Your Highness”), doing credible service to the fondly remembered original. It’s not the sort of movie one tends to remember whilst compiling “best of the year” lists, but it’s still an endearing and affable way to spend 110 minutes.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011