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Arthur (2011)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Arthur And The Unspeakables"
1 stars

When the original “Arthur” was about to debut in theaters in the summer of 1981, few people paid much attention to it at the time--most of the hype was centered on the dream team collaboration of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the return of the Man of Steel in “Superman II.” And yet, the screwball comedy about an immensely rich and irresponsible drunken billionaire who risks losing his entire fortune when he falls in love with a woman with no money or social pretensions struck a chord with critics and audiences alike and while it never broke box-office records, it lasted in theaters for months and months when all was said and done and won a couple of Oscars to boot. In hindsight, however, it is easy to see why people reacted so strongly to it at the time and still do when it turns up on cable today. The screenplay by Steve Gordon (who also made his directing debut with this film--sadly, he would die a little more than a year after its release) was a deft and witty blend of romance and comedy that contained an endless amount of eminently quotable lines and managed to somehow make its lead character’s constant inebriation seem somehow charming under the circumstances. As the title character, Dudley Moore was both hysterically funny and incredibly sweet and demonstrated great on-screen chemistry with both Liza Minnelli as the light of his life and John Gielgud as his acerbic-but-loyal butler (a role for which he would win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Most significantly, it was a film that managed to serve as a throwback to an earlier and more innocent filmmaking era without ever being cloying or pedantic about it--at a time when a lot of movies were trying to somehow the old days of Hollywood by offering up homages that took classic genre storylines and goosed them with higher budgets (ranging in quality from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to the infamous “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” ), hefty doses of once-taboo portrayals of sex and violence (“Body Heat” and “An American Werewolf in London”) or ironic commentary (“Pennies from Heaven,” “Heaven’s Gate”), here was a film that was such a pure example of a once-proud filmmaking tradition that with the removal of a couple of minor off-color moments, it could have easily been made back in the Forties without losing a thing in the process.

These are difficult and intangible qualities that are difficult for any film to achieve and even more difficult to replicate (as the few people who withered through “Arthur 2: On the Rocks,” a sequel that pretty much defined the phrase “patently unnecessary,” can attest) and so the prospect of a remake of “Arthur” seems to be an exceptionally foolhardy move for any sane person to want to undertake. And yet, Hollywood, in its bid to remake every single movie ever made, has seen fit to give it a 21-century makeover and while younger audiences, who probably have never seen or heard of the original, may not have a problem with it, anyone old enough to look upon the first film with promise is liable to look upon the prospect of this retread with serious apprehension. For one thing, public intoxication is no longer quite as amusing by society’s standards as it once was, as the reviews of Charlie Sheen’s stage opus seems to be bearing out. For another, and presumably more important, thing, how could anyone hope to replicate the dream casting of the original--while the notion of Helen Mirren stepping into Gielgud’s shoes sounds promising enough, the notion of replacing Moore and Minnelli with Russell Brand, the British comedian whose screen appearances to date have been entertaining in direct inverse proportion to his actual on-screen time (as a supporting character in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he was a scream but standing front-and-center as that same character in “Get Him to the Greek,” he eventually became kind of intolerable) and Greta Gerwig, the monotonous doyenne of the mumblecore film movement (largely because of her willingness to disrobe at the drop of a forgotten line of dialogue) is enough to give anyone pause. Well, as it turns out, they couldn't and this new incarnation of "Arthur" is just as dreadful as one might have feared--a listless and largely laugh-free endeavor that not only fails to hold a candle to the original but which goes down in history as one of the few comedies to pale in comparison to "Arthur 2."

For the uninitiated, the film tells the story of Arthur Bach (Brand), the man-child heir to a billion-dollar fortune whose nights are an endless string of debaucheries involving prodigious sums of money, alcohol and party girls (not necessarily in that order) and whose days are dedicated to nursing hangovers and shirking off even the faintest glimmers of anything resembling adult responsibility with the aid of loyal driver Bitterman (Luis Guzman) and the acerbic commentary of his longtime nanny Hobson (Mirren). As the film opens, Arthur's mother (Geraldine) has gotten tired of his irresponsible ways (at just about the same time as most people in the audience) and in order to preserve the family business and calm jittery stockholder, she arranges for Arthur to marry Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), a ruthless tycoon-in-training who is perfectly willing to marry someone she doesn't love in order to further her career and position in society. Although he makes it a point of pride to flout every rule of conventional society, occasionally while wearing a Batman outfit, Arthur draws the line at this--he believes that one should marry for love and not for money. However, when Mom threatens to cut him off completely if he doesn't agree to the marriage, he has a not-unexpected change of heart that is further bolstered by a meeting with Susan's tough-as-nails (literally) father (Nick Nolte, whose voice is now so gravelly that it sounds as if he is gargling Harvey Fierstein every time he speaks), who cheerfully offers to run the lad through a table saw if the wedding doesn't proceed and even has such a contraption at the ready should it be needed.

Unfortunately for Arthur (though less so for the rest of us), he has chosen just that moment to genuinely fall in love for the first time in his life. This lucky lass is Naomi (Gerwig), a poor-but-happy free spirit who supports her widowed father by running illegal tour groups through Grand Central Station while nursing a dream of becoming a children's book author so that she can tell the tale of the tempestuous romance between the Statue of Liberty and the Chrysler Building. It is obvious from the start that these two are perfect for each other--they are so unremittingly irritating that anyone else would try to drown them in the bathtub after five minutes of conversation--but Arthur continues to go along on the path to marriage while still yearning for Naomi. For her part, Hobson suspects that Naomi is as much of a gold digger as all of Arthur's other conquests but once she gets to know her, she inexplicably decides that she is the bee's knees as well and tries to encourage him to finally take charge of his own life by doing such previously foreign-sounding things as "getting a job" and "going to AA." At this point, I suspect that even if you never saw the original "Arthur," or any other movie for that matter, you probably have a pretty good idea of where all of this is headed so instead of going on with a plot description, why don't we all step out into the hall for a quick drink while contemplating the notion of a version of "Arthur" in which our hero goes to an AA meeting.

Although the two versions of "Arthur" more or less follow the same broad story parameters, the end results could not possibly be more different with the new incarnation coming up on the losing end virtually every time. The chief problem is one of creating and maintaining a credible comedic tone throughout, a job that Steve Gordon pulled off beautifully 30 years ago and which screenwriter Peter Baynham and director Jason Winer manage to fatally fumble even before the opening credits have finished running. One of the reasons that the character of Arthur worked so well before was because when he was doing his drunken goof-offs, it wasn't so much a result of his utter irresponsibility as much as it was a genuine desire for everyone around him to be able to have as much fun as him for at least a little while. Here, Arthur just comes across as a spoiled and over privileged twit along the lines of Paris Hilton, though with slightly fewer inadvertent paparazzi crotch shots. (Those of you intending on visiting the concession stand during the film should note that I said "slightly fewer.") Another ugly change between the two films comes in the depiction of the woman Arthur is being forced to marry in order to keep himself loaded in every sense of the word. In the original, her worst sin was that she was kind of a bore more than anything else--the notion of a consummate fun-lover like Arthur being married to the kind of person who would go into Baskin-Robbins and order vanilla every time seemed even crueler than a life without booze and money. This time around, the character has been reconceived to come across as a cross between Martha Stewart and a exceptionally harsh dominatrix that is so over-the-top so it destroys whatever fragile credibility the plot might have once held--even if Arthur's mother did want her son to settle down and get married, there is no way that she would allow such a blatantly power-hungry succubus anywhere near her company and fortune. Additionally, the relationship between Arthur and Hobson is also short-circuited by transforming the character from a butler to a nanny--instead of gradually letting us understand Hobson's affections for his charge beneath his withering scorn, that element is essentially announced right from the start and as a result, the moments later on that should have been moving just fall flat. In fact, so many of the comedic bits fall flat that it is a bit of a shock to discover that Winer has directed numerous episodes of the hilarious TV series “Modern Family” and Baynham has written for such people as Steve Coogan and Sacha Baron Cohen. The only way that I can think of to explain why they have succeeded in those instances and failed so completely here is that they are two guys who clearly work well with others, presumably provided that said others are far more talented than they are.

That said, the one brilliant idea that the filmmakers had in regards to this film was to put Helen Mirren in the role of Hobson--oddly enough, this is the second film in a row in which she has played a role previously embodied by Gielgud, having just appeared as Prospero in the blink-and-you-missed-it Julie Taymor take on Shakespeare's "The Tempest." (There are rumors that they once considered switching parts many years ago when they both appeared in "Caligula" but thankfully, cooler heads prevailed.) Of all the elements from the original, this role has been messed with the least and Mirren effortlessly steals every scene she is in while almost convincing viewers that she is indeed devoted to Arthur even though his behavior would inspire even the most patient and loving person to smother him in his sleep. Unfortunately, having pulled off that minor coup, the filmmakers then once again sabotage themselves by wildly miscasting all the other central roles. As I mentioned earlier, Russell Brand is a comedic presence best enjoyed in very small doses but that isn't so much the problem here as the fact that all he is really doing is once again repeating his dissolute rocker character from "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Get Him to the Greek" and while it worked to some degree in those films, it is an epic miscalculation here because when he is his outrageous self in the early scenes, he so overdoes it that it is impossible to believe that anyone, even the likes of Greta Gerwig, could be charmed by it and when he has to shift gears and be sincere in some of the later scenes, the change is patently unconvincing and insincere. As the light of his life, Greta Gerwig is blandly enervating as the kind of achingly winsome free spirit that seems to have based her entire life on the Natalie Portman character from "Garden State" and lacks any of the tart charm that Minnelli brought to the part. The biggest casting bungle, however, comes in the form of having Jennifer Garner, one of the more effortlessly charming and likable actresses around these days, play the scheming bitch part, a role that she is totally unsuited for and in which she comes off horribly. (Worse still, the film does her no favors by constantly shooting her in a manner that makes her resemble no one so much as the Acid Queen character played by Tina Turner in "Tommy.") If I had been one of the studio heads in charge of this project and saw the lack of any chemistry between any of the stars, I would have seriously contemplated shutting down the entire thing and recasting most of the roles--I would have left Mirren in place and replaced Brand with Hugh Laurie, Gerwig with Garner and Garner with the Cloverfield monster.

Misconceived, miscast and misbegotten, "Arthur" is pretty much a disaster from start to finish and if there is a bright side to it all, it is the fact that even if it does wind up making a bunch of money from an audience starved for anything remotely resembling a romantic comedy, it is destined to be forgotten as quickly as most of the other unnecessary remakes that have appeared in the last few years. In addition, despite the sheer cruddiness of this effort, the fact that it exists may inspire some people to go back and check out the original in order to see what a film of this type looks like when it is done correctly. Now if you will excuse me, I really need a drink.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21886&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/08/11 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Dallas International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Dallas International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/15/11 stephen nettles Not funny 1 stars
5/03/11 Luis Russell Brand is hilarious to me! 3 stars
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  08-Apr-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 05-Jul-2011


  DVD: 05-Jul-2011

Directed by
  Jason Winer

Written by
  Russell Brand
  Peter Baynham

  Russell Brand
  Greta Gerwig
  Helen Mirren
  Jennifer Garner
  Nick Nolte

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