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Arthur – The best that you can do?

Arthur - Theater Review
Release Date: 04/08/2011 - MPAA Rating: PG-13
Clacker Rating: 2 Clacks

Hollywood serves up another re-imagining of a 1980s comedy classic, but can Russell Brand fill Dudley Moore's top hat as 'Arthur?'

Helen Mirren and Russell Brand in "Arthur"

A few years ago, director John Waters commented on the Hollywood trend of remakes by telling filmmakers they should stop remaking classics, and remake bad movies and make them better. Hollywood, sadly, has not heeded his words; now they give us a “re-boot” of the comedy classic Arthur. Any movie from the 1980s is ripe for the picking, because the people who go to the movies — especially on opening weekend — weren’t even born when the original Arthur was released in 1981. They almost surely don’t know Dudley Moore and only know Liza Minnelli as that old singer from Sex and the City 2 (and maybe Arrested Development).

The original Arthur Bach was a drunk, plain and simple. A fun drunk, but a drunk nonetheless. He was also filthy rich thanks to his family’s deep pockets, and he loved to cruise around a pre-Disney-fied New York City, picking up prostitutes for a night of fun. He had a servant named Hobson (played brilliantly by Sir John Gielgud, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role). Arthur’s family is dismayed by his behavior and threaten to cut him off unless he marries a girl named Susan — more of a business arrangement than a real marriage. Unfortunately, Arthur has fallen for another girl from the wrong side of the tracks (Liza Minnelli), but is forced to go through with the wedding, because money talks. Hobson takes ill and passes away, leaving Arthur (who had been sober while caring for Hobson) despondent. He hits the bottle again, tells Linda he loves her, and they go to the church to stop the wedding. Susan’s father, however, is very over-protective and gives Arthur a thrashing at the church, when he shows up with Linda and the wedding is cancelled. Arthur knows he will be broke but happy, but his grandmother tells him that he can have the money, because no Bach will ever be a working-class person (an early example of the disdain the rich have for the workers?).

The new Arthur follows the same basic plot, but without any of the charm. This Arthur, played by Russell Brand, is a child in an adult’s body, whereas the original Arthur was just an irresponsible adult. We’re told the new Arthur drinks but he spends more time playing with his toys and causing havoc around New York than he does getting drunk. Political correctness has caught up with Arthur so much that now he attends AA meetings! There is also some gender-bending as his mother, rather than his father and grandmother, threatens to cut him off from the family fortune if he doesn’t marry Susan (Jennifer Garner); but his heart is once again torn by a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, this time named Naomi (Greta Gerwig). Hobson is now a woman (Helen Mirren) who is Arthur’s nanny instead of butler. Yes, nanny. Unfortunately for Mirren, she doesn’t have half as many great one-liners as Gielgud did in the original (don’t count on any Oscar glory for this one), and her illness and death happen so fast that there is no real emotional impact.

I will be honest and admit that I am not the world’s biggest Russell Brand fan. His voice is grating and he’s really not pleasant to look at. All I could think about was if he ever washes his hair. He plays the little boy in Arthur perfectly, but there’s never any real growth in the character, even when he does call off the wedding and forsakes his millions. Jennifer Garner did turn in a nice performance as the woman who knew her marriage to Arthur was only business, because by taking the Bach name she would control his company when his mother stepped down. Garner played the cold-hearted gold digger very well. It’s hard to tell if Mirren just took the role for the paycheck or if she was just exasperated by Brand through the entire shoot, because she was just a sourpuss the whole time. Audiences loved Gielgud’s Hobson because he was witty and just rolled his eyes at Arthur, while Mirren’s Hobson just comes off as a disapproving parent. Worst of all is Greta Gerwig. I enjoyed her performance in No Strings Attached, but here she’s got one expression and one tone of voice, no matter how happy or angry she is with Arthur.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the original Arthur, but I do remember laughing a lot while watching it. I laughed once during the new Arthur.  Some movies are just of their time and can’t be remade or updated without taking some drastic measures. Arthur was certainly of a time when audiences could laugh with and love a drunk millionaire with a penchant for ladies of the evening (and a heart of gold). It’s hard to warm up to a spoiled brat millionaire with a fleet of movie cars (including the original Arthur limo) who doesn’t know the value of a dollar even if he does have a heart of gold. The best that you can do? Rent the original.


Photo Credit: Warner Brothers

4 Responses to “Arthur – The best that you can do?”

April 11, 2011 at 12:35 AM

To be fair, I’m 25 and grew up knowing Liza from Cabaret (although I wouldn’t see the movie until years later) and her scene from Muppets Take Manhattan.

Also, I’m not sure the original can be called “an early example of the disdain the rich have for the workers” when that’s been a trope of storytelling for hundreds if not thousands of years. Heck, just think of A Tale of Two Cities.

April 11, 2011 at 1:14 AM

Point taken – I guess I should have just left out “early” but I guess I was thinking in modern cinematic terms.

As for Liza, there are always exception to the rule. Some people have more cultural influences than others. Heck, I know people in my age range who don’t know half the stars that I do from Liza’s heyday or even prior to my own existence on this earth. I’m pretty sure that the majority of 18 – 25 year olds that might go to see this Arthur may not know of the original or who Liza Minnelli is (or even Dudley Moore, considering he’s been dead for quite some time). In the early 90s, I worked with some “kids” who were 10 years younger than I was and none of them had ever heard of I Dream of Jeannie. That’s just the way it is. I wasn’t trying to make a blanket statement that all the young whipper-snappers out there (yes, I’m old!) are culturally ignorant, but I still feel like a lot of them aren’t as in tune with the past as you and I are.

April 11, 2011 at 1:28 AM

Yeah, it’s interesting what people “my age” know about movies before their time. I grew up loving movies like Bringing Up Baby and Yankee Doodle Dandy, while I had college classmates call any movie before 1995 old.

April 29, 2011 at 1:41 AM

I’m “old” too, probably older than most visitors to this site. I have always been a huge fan of Dudley Moore’s work, especially with Peter Cook, and absolutely loved the original “Arthur.” However, after seeing this new version I was actually pleased. Sure, it’s a copy in many ways, but I felt like the “child in a man’s body” concept was actually more appropriate for a spoiled, rich drunk. Someone who grew up wanting for nothing and whose parents were all but absent would more likely remain a spoiled child on the inside.

While I’ve never been a fan of Russell Brand I have to say I found him at times actually endearing. The change in the dynamic between Arthur and Hobson made as much sense to me as the original considering I accepted the whole concept of Arthur being a child, but I do agree that Hobson’s illness and death were far too rushed to give it the emotional impact it needed (at least for the viewer).

As for the lack of character development on the part of Arthur himself, I just let it be the fairy tale this version apparently wanted to be. In that, and many other ways, it was more like a Disney animated film than a real-life drama. What’s wrong with that? I saw enough trailers and read enough about this version to expect exactly what I got: a fairy tale about a grown-up little boy who falls in love with a grown-up little girl.

It wasn’t deep, but we all laughed throughout this film. Maybe that’s because we went in without any intention of holding this up to the original, but instead allowing this one to be a simple and fun fantasy.

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