I was in the middle of writing a review of Jason Winer’s remake of Arthur (Warner Bros.) that half-apologized for my vaguely remembered fondness for the 1981 original. Then I rewatched the original—and scrapped the old lead. The original Arthur isn’t a perfectly constructed comedy; it lurches a bit in the romantic scenes, and shifts tone too often—but when it’s funny, it’s really funny. (The best jokes are rounded up nimbly in this YouTube montage.) As the perpetually sloshed playboy Arthur Bach and his sardonic butler Hobson, Dudley Moore and John Gielgud have the micro-calibrated rapport of a vaudeville Bertie and Jeeves. In fact, I straight-up love the original Arthur (including and especially “Arthur’s Theme” by Christopher Cross, which is wanly reprised in one scene of the new version.)
Given Hollywood’s current propensity to remasticate any and all valuable entertainment properties as methodically as a cow chewing its cud, Arthur’s number was bound to come up eventually. (Be warned that these 1981 hits are due for recycling: Cannonball Run, Body Heat, My Dinner With Andre.) So I’ll let go my sense of personal affront and grant the Arthur remake the right to exist. The question then becomes not whether this Arthur is worthy of the original, but whether it’s worth two hours of your weekend. And the answer, I fear, is no. If you get caught between the moon and New York City—or even just between two movies at the multiplex—the best that you can do is skip this one.
The lanky British comic Russell Brand, with his well-documented junkie past and hypersexualized party-boy persona, was one of the high points of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, in which he played the dimwitted and aggressively sober pop star Aldous Snow. Brand’s welcome started to wear in Get Him to the Greek, where he played the same character in a precipitous 48-hour fall off the wagon. Still, Brand seemed a reasonable enough fit for the part of Arthur. Though he’s less of a lovable loser than the diminutive Moore, Brand shares Moore’s quality of seeming debauched and innocent at the same time.
Pairing Brand with Helen Mirren in the role of Hobson the butler (here transformed into a nanny) also sounded like a good idea. Martini-dry delivery has long been one of her specialties, and really, is there any such concept as “too much Helen Mirren”? And yet this remake of Arthur fails, starkly and completely, either to capture the magic of the original or to create any of its own. The problem with this movie goes deeper than the casting or performances, deeper than the script by Peter Baynham (who collaborated on the Borat and Bruno films, as well as the BBC series I’m Alan Partridge) or the direction by Winer (the co-executive producer * of the acclaimed ABC series Modern Family). Sure, the jokes could be funnier and the execution crisper, but at heart a 2011 Arthur just doesn’t make sense. Alcohol and money mean completely different things in the movies now than they did 30 years ago—basically, they’re both a lot less fun.
Arthur’s dilemma—he must marry a stuck-up society girl chosen by his family (Jennifer Garner) or lose his vast fortune overnight—doesn’t scan in a world where wealth and respectability have long since amicably split, and a dissolute heir only stands to gain in status by misbehaving publicly. (A miscast and, for the first time, annoying Greta Gerwig plays the strangely infantilized pixie from Queens who turns Arthur’s head on the eve of his wedding.) The recession—and, in a wider context, the massive upward transfer of wealth that’s occurred in the 30 years since the Reagan era—have made the notion of an idle but lovable billionaire harder to take. And above all, the spread of AA culture and the recognition of alcoholism as a disease have made drunk jokes—a comic staple in Dudley Moore’s day—seem gauche and unfunny. This Arthur acknowledges the recession exactly once and has its hero compensate for this staggering financial injustice by taking cash out of an ATM and throwing it at a dozen or so hangers-on. And when Arthur 2.0 goes to a church-basement AA meeting and owns up to his addiction issues—well, more power to Brand for quelling his real-life demons, but I’d rather watch Moore painstakingly balance a glass of whisky on the fender of his vintage car.
Correction, April 8, 2011: The article originally misidentified Jason Winer as the sole creator of Modern Family. (Return to the corrected sentence.)