“Arthur” Remake Provokes A. O. Scott To Perfection

Times critic skewers movie monster with toreador elegance

Apparently snorting coke is not terribly good for the brains of Hollywood executives, judging from their output over the last forty years, and one of the worst symptoms is the rash of remakes of classic movies we have had to put up with where, in search of easy money, they choose titles which are so irreplaceable in the pantheon of creative excellence that any edited second edition is doomed from the beginning.

Thus the very fine The Heartbreak Kid, the minor but priceless Elaine May-Charles Grodin-Cybil Shepherd classic of 1971, was updated in 2007 into a heavy footed Ben Stiller farce which had none of the heart tugging emotional risk taking of the original.  The 1955 Ealing Studios Ladykillers remade by the Coen brothers reportedly came off badly, and their revision of John Wayne’s True Grit with Jeff Bridges only won a warm reception from critics with wholesale rewriting, one gathers (we don’t go near these things except for research purposes) .

Now we have  the Arthur remake by Russell Brand of Dudley Moore’s 1981 tour-de-force, which David Denby in the New Yorker this week dismisses rather shortly as fatally flawed (“has so many things wrong with it that one can only stare at the screen in disbelief”).   But from the ashes emerges a gem – the perfectly pitched review of this disaster by A.O.Scott at the Times,  which ends with a witty guffaw so appropriate it redeems the existence of the entire misguided movie:

A Lush Life Revisited, With Nanny On Board

By A. O. Scott  April 7, 2011

It would be conventional to describe “Arthur” as a vehicle for the talents of Russell Brand, who plays the boozy billionaire of the title, but that would be to get it backward. Mr. Brand, with his stringy hair, stretched-out body and nutty British demeanor, is more like the beast of burden, charged with hauling this grim load of mediocrity to the box office. The film, directed by Jason Winer and based on a fondly recalled 1981 comedy of the same name starring Dudley Moore, has been made according to a lazy and cynical commercial blueprint. You’ve seen it in the lesser work of Will FerrellAdam Sandlerand most other male comedians who walk the line between popularity and overexposure. The star does his patented shtick, supported by a handful of blue-chip supporting performers, as the story lurches through contrived, seminaughty comic set pieces toward a sentimental ending.

The original “Arthur” followed this formula too but with enough inventiveness and sincerity to make it an enduringly enjoyable experience, if not quite the “classic” it is sometimes claimed to be. In addition to Mr. Moore, it had Liza Minnellias Arthur’s wacky love interest and John Gielgud as his butler. The new version has Greta Gerwig and Helen Mirren in analogous roles, which should have yielded something refreshing rather than dispiriting.

Ms. Mirren, playing Arthur’s nanny, Hobson, acquits herself with just the blend of starch and mischief you would expect. Ms. Gerwig, who when given a chance has an intriguing way of mixing slyness and sincerity, cannot quite slip out of the prison the filmmakers have built for her — a locked room at the Zooey Deschanel Institute for the Cute and Quirky. Her character, Naomi, is a waifish aspiring children’s book author from Queens who conducts wide-eyed, clandestine tours of Grand Central Terminal for visitors from Tweeland. But of course Naomi’s real job is to be charmed by Arthur and then hurt by him, repeating the sequence until he has resolved his issues and we can all go home.

Those issues are, at least superficially, alcohol and money, about which the movie, like the rest of American culture, has a great deal of ambivalence. We love money because of all the carefree fun we imagine having with it — Arthur rents out Grand Central for a date, stages bidding wars with himself at antiques auctions and buys as many cars, toys and clothes as he wants — but we don’t much like to think about how it is acquired. Luckily, the ugly, greedy side of wealth is incarnated by the movie’s villains. Arthur’s cold, disapproving mother (Geraldine James), who runs the giant corporation that feeds his whims, strong-arms him into an engagement with Susan (Jennifer Garner), a grasping heiress with a mean, macho, self-made dad (Nick Nolte). Next to all of them, Arthur, who has proudly never done a day’s work in his life, is meant to seem irresponsible, sure, but also authentic — a harmless hedonist.

And also a harmless drunk, a notion the film has a bit more trouble sustaining. Drunkenness, it is widely agreed, is funny: people fall down, slur their words and do crazy stuff they can’t remember the next day. Alcoholism, however, is sad. It wrecks lives, families, cars and livers. The first “Arthur,” the product of a less anxious age, managed to find a workable balance of poignancy and pixilation, making its hero at once a lovable free spirit and a pitiable lost soul. This one, trying to repeat the trick, inadvertently affirms a truth definitively established in an early episode of “The Simpsons,” namely that most drunks, however sparkling they may appear to themselves, are boring and tiresome to others.

And so it is with Arthur, who insists against all evidence that he is actually charming and who is supported in that judgment by Hobson and Naomi. His only other friend is his chauffeur, Bitterman (Luis Guzmán), who is not Robin to Arthur’s Batman (despite an early superhero-costumed scene suggesting as much), but rather Winnie the Pooh to his Tigger. Arthur may have grown-up appetites for liquor and sex, but his defining trait is childishness. He is not so much adolescent as almost literally infantile, talking in a high-pitched baby voice and dependent on a squadron of mommies.

Naomi makes a show of spurning that role, but who is she kidding? Hobson at one point extols the joys of taking care of Arthur, and while the movie pretends that he must grow up and learn to care for others (and stop drinking), its momentum is all in the other direction. What is supposed to be Arthur’s maturation is actually regression, as if he were trading in the whiskey bottle for the baby bottle. He rejects the corruptions of adulthood imposed by his ruthless mother and his sexually predatory fiancée in favor of a relationship characterized by unthreatening, childlike innocence. He and Naomi eat Pez candy on their first date and share their happy-ending kiss in a room full of kindergartners. Never have I needed a drink so badly.

“Arthur” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some naughty language and sexual situations.

ARTHUR

Opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed by Jason Winer; written by Peter Baynham, based on a story by Steve Gordon and the movie “Arthur,” written and directed by Mr. Gordon; director of photography, Uta Briesewitz; edited by Brent White; music by Theodore Shapiro; production design by Sarah Knowles; costumes by Juliet Polcsa; produced by Larry Brezner, Kevin McCormick, Chris Bender and Michael Tadross; released by Warner.

WITH: Russell Brand (Arthur), Helen Mirren (Hobson), Greta Gerwig (Naomi), Jennifer Garner (Susan), Geraldine James (Vivienne), Luis Guzmán (Bitterman) and Nick Nolte (Burt Johnson).

Nice headline writing, too.


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