Hopefully, years from now when this movie is a distant box office memory, brave film teachers will use it as a teaching tool to show students that it takes more than just a list of ingredients to make a really good cake. The Arthur remake seems to follow the recipe as best it can, but will leave viewers wishing they had just eaten at home.
Staying in the same lane as the 1981 original starring Dudley Moore, Arthur makes a decent attempt to recapture the magic of its predecessor. Russell Brand enthusiastically jumps into Moore’s shoes as the carefree alcoholic billionaire with a sharp tongue and a knack for getting into trouble. Arthur’s booze consumption is borderline science fiction and would make any frat boy’s liver turn away from the screen. Thankfully, he’s got his nanny Hobsen played by Helen Mirren.
When Arthur’s controlling mom Vivienne gets pressured to rein in her would be heir, she gives Arthur the one gift that he can’t stand: an ultimatum. He has to marry her rich, but status seeking assistant Susan (Jennifer Garner) or be left with only his pride and the clothes on his back. Complicating matters is his schoolboy crush on Naomi, a simpleminded cutie who runs illegal tours through Grand Central Station. Will he chose love or money? Will he be sober enough to know which is which?
Remaking a classic is always rife with unfair and unnecessary expectations, because like every kiss after, it’s almost doomed to be compared to an original that has benefited from its place in history and the romantic nostalgia that comes with age. Although Brand’s Arthur matches Moore’s drink for drink (and maybe then some), director Jason Wyner (Modern Family) takes the keys from Arthur in this 21st century incarnation. Moore’s swerving and crashing classic cars may have been cute in 1981, but in 2011, it would’ve been doomed out of the gate to let him behind the wheel. This new Arthur thankfully comes with a chauffeur played by longtime character actor Luis Guzman. His Bitterman is a well meaning, but simple minded Robin to Brand’s Batman (as seen in a hilarious sight gag to start the film).
Russell Brand is at his best when he’s larger than life as shown by his performances as Aldous Snow in Get Him to the Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In those two movies, his wavy locks and Jaggeresque sexuality delightfully showed that a little bit really can go a long way. In Arthur, he’s just large and perhaps that’s the problem. Although, Moore hated to be known as “Cuddly Duddly”, he was just that, if not by performance then certainly in physical stature. Like it or not, we love to cheer for the “little guy”, no matter his faults. Brand, at nearly a foot taller than Moore’s 5’2″ frame, is fun to watch, but doesn’t elicit the sympathy of Moore. It’s only when he’s seated during a rehab scene do you really start to see his humanity, despite the hour that precedes it.
Helen Mirren takes over for Sir John Gielgud as Hobson in one of the saving graces of the film. While not as stodgy as Gielgud’s, Mirren’s Hobson brings to mind what us yanks thought nannies were before the tabloid producing “nannicams” hit the nightly news. Forced by conscience to be Arthur’s surrogate mother, Mirren provides a tenderness to Brand that is key to Arthur’s gradual evolution. It’s hard not to finding yourself wanting her approval when she finally breaks down and smiles. Mirren shared the billing, but not much time together in 2010′s Tempest and thought she’d be overshadowed by Brand’s personality before signing on to Arthur. Thankfully, those fears were unnecessary as her chemistry with Arthur is what prevents the film from being written off as another bad remake.
Although, it seems illogical why any man would fight off the advances of Jennifer Garner, her Susan makes a good case for it. Susan wants status that eludes her due to being born into construction wealth. Not only does she walk the tightrope of being funny and sexy at the same time, but serves as a sexual midpoint between the man-whore of Arthur and the pixielike innocence of Naomi (Greta Gerwig). Gerwig seems almost too nice to be in this picture, but while she doesn’t steal scenes, she does provide the perfect, although innocent, outlet for Arthur to grow.
Arthur hits all the right spots, but comes up short. It has enough one liners to keep the movie moving along, but it lacks the heart and depth that Moore’s charm brought to the role. Size matters and this was a time where it works against Brand. His humor and charisma shines through only when he seems to be beaten and by then it’s too little, too late. There are definitely laughs in Arthur, but it’s only one ingredient needed to make this cake taste good.