“Arthur” Can’t Conquer Comparisons to the Witty Original

“Arthur,” starring Russell Brand as the rich boy who may never grow up, is a sweet-natured romantic comedy. If it wasn’t for the impossible-to-avoid comparisons to the 1981 film starring Dudley Moore we could leave it at that. The new film doesn’t remake the original scene for scene, but the plot is basically the same. Unless you are too young to have seen the original, it will be impossible not to view this film and make the inevitable comparions.

As the story opens, Hobson (Helen Mirren) has stayed on for a longer-than-usual term as nanny to multi-millionaire scion Arthur Bach (Brand). His other minder, kind-hearted chauffeur and accomplice Bitterman (Luis Guzmán), is his only friend. Arthur’s distant and disinterested mother Vivienne (Geraldine James) is tired of his boozing around and being perpetual tabloid fodder, so she issues an ultimatum – either straighten up and marry her responsible employee Susan (Jennifer Garner), or go on his merry drunken way – without his inheritance. Neither Arthur nor Hobson can imagine him being able to live without the money, so he reluctantly agrees to the proposition – until he meets adorable rogue tour guide Naomi (Greta Gerwig).

Dudley Moore’s pickled rich playboy was immature and irresponsible. He was also funny as hell, in a constant state of inebriation and cracking himself up, “I race cars, play tennis, and fondle women, but – I have weekends off, and I am my own boss.” Brand’s Arthur is childlike. He is surrounded by toys and gadgets – a giant solar system mobile hangs above his magnetic hover bed and he owns a fleet of “toy” cars (the Batmobile, the Mystery Machine from “Scooby Doo,” the “Back to the Future” DeLorean, etc.) He doesn’t find himself funny. He’s too busy trying to get a reaction out of everyone around him, “We don’t have anything in common. You love horses. I don’t trust them. Their shoes are permanent. Who makes that kind of commitment to a shoe?” Both men and their incessant banter are written off by most people, until they each meet a certain (different) lady.

Liza Minnelli, Arthur’s true love in the earlier film, was a waitress from Queens who impressed Arthur by stealing a tie from Bergdorf’s. Minnelli obviously had fun, as she matched Moore quip for quip, “Nice place… I love a living room you can land a plane in.” Their relationship was very music hall, full of shtick. Their dialogue often felt like they were rehearsing to take their act on the road (and they eventually did, in the pretty terrible sequel, “Arthur 2: On the Rocks in 1988). Gerwig’s Naomi in the 2011 film may fall for a drunk, but things have changed a lot in the past 30 years and Brand’s Arthur cannot stay a boozer. Naomi wouldn’t put up with it and neither would the audience. The most obvious weakness in the newer film is Hobson accepting her charge’s drunkenness for so long. She obviously loves him deeply and isn’t afraid to kick his butt when the situation requires, so why does she?

Director Jason Winer (“Modern Family), has wisely played off the rapport between Brand and co-star Mirren, the strongest aspect of the new film. The two worked together previously in Julie Taymor’s “The Tempest.” Audiences who might be reluctant to see how Brand tries to fill Moore’s shoes might be surprised to learn that the biggest difference between the two films is how Mirren fills Gielgud’s. The original “Arthur inspires nostalgic devotion, but 2011’s “Arthur may have more heart, due primarily to the fantastic chemistry between Brand and Mirren. As Arthur’s life gets more and more real, his relationship with Hobson deepens. Don’t get me wrong, Gielgud was amazing in the original, and had some of the best one-liners ever in a comedy. His dignified yet disdainfully acid delivery practically walked away with the movie:

Arthur: Hobson?
Hobson: Yes.
Arthur: Do you know what I’m going to do?
Hobson: No, I don’t.
Arthur: I’m going to take a bath.
Hobson: I’ll alert the media.
Arthur: [rises] Do you want to run my bath for me?
Hobson: That’s what I live for. [Arthur exits] Perhaps you would like me to come in there and wash your dick for you, you little shit.

Mirren doesn’t get anything near that level of dialogue, but her performance doesn’t center on cracking jokes. She does get in a few good barbs, in lines both new and recycled: “A little tart like that could save you a fortune in prostitutes.” Mirren may have been the only appropriate choice to play Hobson. There really isn’t a male actor who could have convincingly replaced Gielgud, whose brilliant delivery won him the Best Supporting Actor for “Arthur:

[After Arthur has been whining and feeling sorry for himself, Hobson slaps him hard across the face] “You’re a man who has everything, aren’t you? But that’s not enough! You feel unloved, Arthur? Welcome to the world. Everyone is unloved! Now stop feeling sorry for yourself … Incidentally … I love you. Marry Susan, Arthur. Poor drunks do not find love, Arthur. Poor drunks have very few teeth, they urinate outdoors, they freeze to death in summer. I can’t bear to think of you that way .”

The nature of a female caretaker versus a male one changes everything. It creates a softer, more maternal back-and-forth between the two characters. “Arthur in 2011 is really two love stories – his love for his true mother, Hobson, and his growing love for Naomi. As Mirren has stated, “I defy anybody to spend two hours with Russell and not be totally charmed.” She’s right. As over-the-top as his energy is, and as crazy as the character might be, Arthur the character does grow on you.

Russell Brand has slowly but steadily been invading the U.S. over the past few years. As Aldous Snow in Judd Apatow’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall he was pitch-perfect as an obnoxious but verbally clever and inexplicably likable rock star. He reprised the character in “Get Him to the Greek,” which was nowhere near as good as the previous film, but his character still charmed. Through his years of stand-up and various hosting gigs Brand has been perfecting his motormouth bad boy-with-a-heart-of-gold persona, heavily modeled on his personal history of drink and drugs and rock star-style past excesses. His portrayal of Arthur is a paler shade of the same character.

Both incarnations of Arthur are alcoholics, Moore’s irrepressibly and unapologetically so. At the end of the 1981 film there is no reason to assume that he will stop drinking. Brand’s Arthur drinks from desperation and a sense of abandon, which suits his more manic style of comedy. We can only wonder what might have happened if Brand’s Arthur was more Aldous Snow and less Edward Scissorhands. It would have certainly made for an edgier film, even sharper than the original. But a lot has changed since Moore was cruising the streets in his chauffeured limousine.

Like its predecessor, the remake is set in Manhattan and uses the backdrop of the city to great advantage, especially with a few sequences set in Grand Central Station. But both “Arthur and New York are decidedly different 30 years later. Times Square now has more in common with the Mall of America than a red light district. So many of Brand’s antics take him through a brightly-colored fantasy world – only too appropriate, as his New York is viewed from an almost-billionaire’s ($950,000,000) perspective. Naughty, little-boyish antics are Arthur’s specialty. One of the “games” he loves to play is spying, “Rear Window-like, from his bath, all-too-accurately nicknaming pedestrians: the “Asian Hobson,” the “lesbian Simon And Garfunkle.” When Arthur finally visits Susan’s father Burt (Nick Nolte) to reluctantly ask for her hand in marriage his game is turned on its head. Burt shows Arthur around the high-rise he is building, which has a terrific view – and a long-range telescope trained on Arthur’s bedroom window. Creepy.

Some of Arthur’s best lines are directed at Susan, in a desperate attempt to extricate himself from their engagement. In one encounter, Susan tries unsuccessfully to seduce him and ends up getting stuck to his magnetic hover bed. Arthur can only observe, “At least something in this room is attracted to you.” Garner does the most she can with the thankless role of the horrible fiancée. In the original movie Susan was a clueless society woman, acquisitive and part of a social machine. Garner’s Susan is a woman with a big-business agenda on a take-over bid. She wants to control Bach Industries and she’ll do whatever it takes to reach her goal. Nolte, as her beyond-obnoxious dad is as one-note as the father in the original film.

In the first film Christopher Cross’s “Arthur’s Theme” was a true earworm. It is a bit strange that the filmmakers didn’t try to come up with a new signature tune for the remake, especially since its star (who is also one of its producers) is married to an earworm-creator extraordinaire, Katy Perry. “Arthur’s Theme” does show up as background music briefly in a scene between Arthur and Naomi, and also in a new but pretty unremarkable remake by Fitz and the Tantrums over the end credits.

Does the new “Arthur suffer from comparison? Yes. It’s hard not to banish memories of Gielgud and Moore and even Minnelli. The original film, slapdash and casual and not really as great as everyone remembers, is still better than the new one. If this “Arthur was not a remake but an original film it may merely have been considered another slight addition to the rom-com genre. The most important thing about the new movie is that Russell Brand has proved that his particular brand of crazy can also work in a sweeter setting. “Arthur is most successful at firmly establishing him as an entertainer with a future.

Rob Lowman, “Russell Brand, Helen Mirren team up in ‘Arthur’ remake,” L.A. Daily News