By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
You’ve got to hand it to him. A drink, that is. Because he’s Arthur. Not King Arthur. Drunk Arthur. And if there’s a round table around, he’s likely to be under it.
He’s the central character in Arthur, a remake of a boisterously funny screwball comedy that earned out-loud laughs and Oscar recognition in 1981 for its portrait of the lovable, alcoholic title character (now there’s something you don’t see every day on the movie screen).
The original version starred Dudley Moore, who brought a strange sweetness to his rich, happy drunk, and Sir John Gielgud, who won a best supporting actor Oscar for his efforts as his sardonic and deadpan valet.
But whereas Moore’s Arthur was childlike, Russell Brand’s Arthur is childish. At best.
Brand’s Arthur Bach, irresponsible, hedonistic, and perpetually tipsy — and lacking the winning amiability contributed by Moore in the earlier version — is a decadent soon-to-be billionaire who is attended to by Hobson, his sensible nanny and valet, played by Helen Mirren.
He is meant to submit to an arranged marriage to one Susan Johnson, a driven socialite played by Jennifer Garner, and routinely claim his gaudy inheritance.
But he informs his family that he has fallen in love with Naomi, a (mere) Grand Central Station tour guide — and an unlicensed one at that — played by Greta Gerwig, and is thus told that he stands to be disinherited, lose his fortune, and fall out of the fraternity of billionaires.
So what will it be, money or love?
Debuting director Jason Winer, whose background is in television, works from a screenplay by Peter Baynham (who wrote two Sacha Baron Cohen vehicles, Borat and Bruno) that updates the ain’t-drunkenness-fun-to-watch tone with references to AA meetings and softens the ain’t-conspicuous-consumption-a-kick presumption with references to the recession.
But most of the wit and whimsy of the original has been lost in translation for this sloppy second.
Dudley Moore’s particular brand of naughty, inebriated charm, coupled with Gielgud’s hilariously dry line readings as Arthur’s acid-tongued father figure, gave the original Arthur considerable comedic flair. Moore’s Arthur was as amused by the words coming out of his mouth as we were, so we laughed with him.
By contrast, Brand’s Arthur is a vehicle for him to strut his stuff for us, and we’re not buying. The remake offers Brand a generously large stage to change our perception that he is, in his big-screen work thus far, as often obnoxious (Get Him to the Greek) as he is winning (arguably, and in a supporting role, Forgetting Sarah Marshall).
In Arthur, although he tries to play a real person rather than his customary caricature, he’s mostly just insufferable.
Brand and Mirren, trying to capture the rapport that Moore and Gielgud displayed so wonderfully three decades ago, strain to amuse. Brand just doesn’t have a leading-man presence in any genre, and Mirren, acting uphill thanks to the script, has to work much too hard to get the few laughs she manages.
And when tragedy strikes late in the film, the emotion suggested in a scene meant to be touching falls flat because what has led up to it has been so shoddily developed and dealt with.
So we’ll drink 2 stars out of 4 for Arthur redux. That star Russell Brand is also an executive producer may be all we need to know to explain why this harmless but charmless comedy tastes so flat.