I won’t dispute the greatness of the original 1981 version of Arthur. I will say that, in its own right, this 2011 remake is funny and often quite charming. This is thanks in large part to the spot-on casting of Russell Brand, who may not have the same loveable graces of the late Dudley Moore but has just the right eccentricities to make multi-millionaire Arthur Bach an appealing yet piteous drunk. His take is a cross between an alcoholic and a manchild, and while that may seem like too much, it actually works quite well. The other noticeable difference is the character of Hobson, who has been changed from a butler to a nanny and is played by Helen Mirren; although she lacks the restraint of John Gielgud, her dry wit and biting sarcasm makes the character funny in an entirely new way. Despite her aloofness, her maternal instincts are never far off. This only made me like her even more.
The plot is very similar to the original film. Arthur, a New York playboy who lives off of his family’s fortune and has never held a job, regularly humiliates his controlling mother, Vivienne (Geraldine James), with whom he’s on a first-name basis. Fed up with his drinking and boyish antics – not the least of which is dressing up as Batman, driving erratically in an actual Batmobile, crashing, and yet again getting arrested – she gives him an ultimatum: If he wishes to remain heir to a $900 million fortune, he must marry Susan (Jennifer Garner), the daughter of a wealthy construction tycoon (Nick Nolte). For Susan, it’s merely a vindictive ploy to be respected in upper-class circles, since working your way to the top is apparently not good enough. Needless to say, she and Arthur have absolutely no romantic feelings for each other.
But Arthur cannot simply say goodbye to a life of luxury, so he begrudgingly goes along with it. Nevertheless, he falls in love with Naomi (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring children’s book writer who makes money by guiding illegal tours of Grand Central Station. In an implausible but cute scene, Arthur woos Naomi by setting up a dinner (a tray full of Pez pellets and custom dispensers) in the lobby, compete with rose petals, a waiter, and acrobats bouncing around on trampolines. This not only required the emptying of the station but also the rerouting of several train lines. I couldn’t even begin to guess the logistics of such an undertaking, but then again, I don’t think I’m supposed to try; the point is that we see the two of them falling in love, and indeed, Naomi is a sweet and caring young woman, and just as it was with Liza Minnelli, I could see her falling in love with Arthur.
Keeping watch over the whole thing is Hobson, who’s just tactful enough to do her job but isn’t so submissive that she can’t throw the occasional zinger. She every bit a woman who has seen it all, done it all, and is genuinely sick of it. How else to feel when your duties include donning latex gloves, tossing out half-finished bottles of booze, and rounding up dozens of party guests who lay passed out on the floor? She clearly has misgivings, and I don’t blame her. She also cares deeply for Arthur, and I don’t blame her for that, either. There is a loveable man there; it inevitably comes down to resentment of his mother and sorrow over the loss of his father, and he needs to find a healthier outlet for his frustration. You can’t fill an emotional void with bottles of alcohol or insanely expensive auction items.
Much of the comedy comes from Arthur’s caricaturish behavior and witty dialogue. Some have criticized this – I say that Brand is in real life a caricature, and therefore is perfectly suited for this material. In unique Brand fashion, we will watch Arthur fail miserably at working at a candy store, where he actually wants to try his hand at dressing up as a gigantic Gummi Bear – a job most people would find thankless and demeaning. Although he has the slurred speech down pat, Brand is not exactly doing a Dudley Moore imitation. This isn’t a criticism. A true remake stays faithful to its source, and yet it also features distinctive touches from both the filmmakers and the actors; although the plot is roughly the same, there are enough differences between this Arthur and the original for them to stand on their own.
Admittedly, this version isn’t as consistently funny. The tone is goofier, the characters are broader, and the story isn’t quite as plausible. I was disappointed by the casting of Luis Guzman as Arthur’s chauffeur, an infrequent character that ultimately contributes nothing to the story, apart from a few throwaway one-liners. Nolte is tragically miscast and plays the worst character; in a horribly unfunny scene, he forces Arthur to stick his tongue out and inch closer to a working table saw, which is supposed to automatically shut off when moisture is detected. He’s not a protective father, but a ruthless psychopath, and he has the gravelly voice to match. Regardless, Arthur is overall an enjoyable movie – far from perfect, but a great vehicle for Brand and Mirren.
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Warner Bros. Pictures