Friday, April 8, 2011

A Drunk Billionaire's Best Friend Is His Bottle Nanny

Helen Mirren as Hobson and Russell Brand as Arthur in Jason Winer's comedy-drama "Arthur"
Warner Brothers

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Friday, April 8, 2011

Thirty years ago Dudley Moore's portrayal of a lovable, inimitable, life-loving drunk New York millionaire was an iconic staple of Steve Gordon's comedy "Arthur".  Jason Winer has updated the classic film for 21st century audiences with his comedy-drama "Arthur", which opened today across the U.S. and Canada.  Russell Brand takes over from where the late Mr. Moore left off. 

Mr. Brand's Big Apple billionaire Arthur Bach is obsessed with movie cars and artifacts from 1980s films.  Arthur doesn't use an iPad and has fewer drinks than his predecessor.  As in Mr. Gordon's film, Arthur has to marry heiress Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner) to keep the Bach fortune and corporate hierarchy intact.  One problem: Naomi (Greta Gerwig) has caught Arthur's eye and his heart.  She's everything that Susan isn't: kind, selfless, wise, beautiful, with a heart of gold.  Actually, let's make that two problems: if Arthur doesn't marry Susan he stands to lose out on a multi-billion dollar inheritance.

Mr. Winer's film utilizes the spiky, acid shtick of Mr. Brand to make "Arthur" a tacky, tasteless experience.  The short cut to laughs is a constant torrent of mean-spirited and shock-jock type offensive jabs at various targets.  None of the jabs or "jokes" are funny and Mr. Brand's talents don't show until the final 15 minutes of a two-hour film that should have been shorn by at least half an hour.  I didn't laugh, though plenty of laugh-track laughter from the invited public accompanied my stony demeanor.

Comparisons between Mr. Gordon's film and Mr. Winer's are inevitable.  Where "Arthur" 1981 was sunny, spirited, radiant and bursting with life, "Arthur" 2011 is drenched in the dour and empty.  With all his invective you'd think today's Arthur Bach was miserable with his billionaire status.  The current "Arthur" movie poster declares that Arthur is lovable, but there's nothing lovable or charming about him.  He's a pithy guy who doesn't even make his number one vocation the affecting enterprise Mr. Moore did. 

The new "Arthur" lacks the warmth and sweetness of Mr. Gordon's clever, lively and funny original.  Mr. Winer's film is submerged by endless gimmicks and small children who say the kinds of things they're not supposed to.  "Arthur" brings the worst attributes of a short-attention span generation and lathers in them.  Mr. Winer displays eye-candy moments and forsakes age-old questions about love and money in this financial atmosphere -- an atmosphere "Arthur" cynically responds to.  Mr. Winer tries tenderness with a scene featuring Mr. Brand as a toy store employee but it isn't tender or funny.  Arthur's still a kid, but he's a kid without laughter or happiness, and it shows in his casual bitterness.  He's the film's true Bitterman.

If not for the warmth and innocence of Ms. Gerwig's Naomi and the tartness of the sublime Helen Mirren, occasionally great here (especially in the film's second hour) as Hobson, Arthur's long-time friend and nanny, Mr. Winer's film would rival "The Green Hornet" and "Just Go With It" for "year's worst" contention.  As it stands, "Arthur" is a grueling comedy peppered with nice decor and colorful wardrobe.  Like "Sex And The City 2", "Arthur" is just plain silly.  Silly isn't a sin at the movies, but silly lazily executed or silly couched in unnecessary mean-spiritedness is another story -- namely Arthur's story.

Fans of Russell Brand will enjoy "Arthur", though many of those fans may not have been born or seen the original "Arthur" in 1981.  Those who aren't fans of Mr. Brand will likely come away from the film unenthused at best.  Heavily choreographed, the new "Arthur" borrows a few lines and scenarios from the old "Arthur".  You know where the new film is going, and you know when the sight gags will come.  The film is lazy in its storytelling, even if it is based on Mr. Gordon's original story.  (The new screenplay was written by Peter Baynham.)  Relying on one poor joke or gag after another to sustain itself, Mr. Winer's "Arthur" wobbles in a stiff, uncomfortable way.

In "Arthur", Mr. Brand doesn't get much deeper than the cutting insults he hurls.  Where Dudley Moore effortlessly used physical comedy for his 1980s drunk character in such earthy, hearty, full-throated ways, Mr. Brand relies on props and gadgetry to surround his Arthur Bach, whether that means stripping to his skivvies as he's done in both "Get Him To The Greek" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" or making the lewd and lascivious comments reserved for an R-rated film.

There's little imagination to "Arthur" and the film stifles Luis Guzmán's talents by putting him in a fancy-dress strait jacket as Bitterman, Arthur's dependable chauffeur.  Could Jim Carrey or Sasha Baron Cohen have supplied fun, physical comedy, an English accent and some emotional depth as Arthur?  Perhaps.  There's so much more that could have been done to make this film better than it is.  I was sapped by this joyless, soul-sucking experience, knowing I could have better enjoyed my time watching Mr. Moore's great portrayal again.  Mr. Brand's Arthur is the antithesis, and it doesn't work for Mr. Winer's film the way it should.

With: Geraldine James, Nick Nolte, John Hodgman, Matt Malloy.

"Arthur" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for alcohol use throughout, sexual content, language and some drug references.  The film's duration is one hour and 50 minutes. 

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