For example, while studio executives may make plenty of head-scratching decisions, they’re generally savvy enough not to attempt remaking acknowledged masterpieces; they want something with a name familiar enough from being liked, but probably not something that was loved. Conversely, it’s hard to comprehend the logic when you see a remake of a film that clearly worked the first time not because of the story, but because of the effectiveness of the stars involved. Clearly we could all see Ghostbusters becoming a second-time-around smash with Dane Cook replacing Bill Murray.
It’s been 30 years since Dudley Moore staggered drunkenly through the original Arthur, and despite placing on an American Film Institute list of great American comedies, it was best known for that insipid Christopher Cross (“Best That You Can Do”) theme that was better as a Seinfeld punch line than as an actual song. So why not give it another spin? The problem is that little performance and casting choices can mean a lot—and as funny as this Arthur frequently is, it feels as perpetually off-balance as its main character.
That main character is Arthur Bach (Russell Brand)—heir to a multimillion-dollar fortune, dawn-to-dusk drunkard and general paragon of immature irresponsibility. Never required to hold down a job and always watched over by his nanny-since-birth, Hobson (Helen Mirren), Arthur is a source of embarrassment and a threat to the family business for his mother (Geraldine James). So Mama lays down the law: Arthur will marry icy but successful business executive Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner) to give investors the impression of long-term stability, or Arthur will lose his inheritance. Inconveniently, this ultimatum comes just as he meets and falls for kind-hearted working-class Naomi (Greta Gerwig).
Brand’s signature role in America was the woozy rock star from Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, so it doesn’t seem like it would be a tremendous leap to have him play a slightly different sort of pampered, addled playboy. And he gets plenty of terrific lines in the script by frequent Steve Coogan collaborator Peter Baynham, which he tosses out with a casual confidence that never gives a joke a rimshot. Yet he’s also a completely different type of comic presence than Dudley Moore—a full foot taller, and prone to speaking with a snarl that makes it look as though a drawstring has been wrapped around his lips. In short, there’s a sense of danger about him, which has a tendency to make him a less instantly sympathetic party animal than cuddly Dudley.
Mirren, on the other hand, would seem to be more than a bit of gender-reversed stunt casting as counterpoint to John Gielgud’s Oscar-winning Hobson from the original Arthur. She brings a similar gravitas, and comic timing that’s just as solid as her dramatic chops. But making Hobson a surrogate mother rather than a surrogate father results in less of a prickly initial interaction between the two; when Mirren softens towards Naomi and tries to steer Arthur towards happiness, there’s not as much surprise to the shift. As good as Mirren is, she’s always playing the caring de facto family member, rather than the somewhat exasperated babysitter.
If there’s one welcome improvement, it comes from Gerwig’s role. Liza Minnelli’s shoplifter with a heart of gold in the original Arthur was quirky, but Gerwig brings an effortless radiance that raises the romantic stakes. She also brings a naturalism to the relationship between Naomi and Arthur, which doesn’t play to Brand’s strengths. Get Him to the Greek had the same problems when Brand’s character was asked to make a change from narcissism to self awareness; introspective sensitivity is not the bloke’s strong suit.
It’s always hard to speculate about how a remake works differently if you’ve never seen the original and have no basis for comparison. This Arthur is often very funny, and an ideal showcase for a comedian like Brand. It’s also, like most movie comedies, a chemistry experiment in which just a few drops more or less of any given ingredient can make success hard to duplicate. This one winds up at times in an awkward middle ground between frivolous airiness and down-to-earth humanity, sort of like it was caught between the moon and … naaaaaah.
Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Greta Gerwig