Friday, April 8, 2011

Arthur: Poor little rich remake

Arthur (2011) • View trailer for Arthur
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sensuality, profanity, drug references and relentless alcohol abuse
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.8.11

Director Jason Winer's most impressive accomplishment, in his remake of 1981's Arthur, is keeping a lid on his star's aggressively flamboyant tendencies.

A little bit of Russell Brand goes a very long way.
Breakfast time in the Bach household often is conducted well after the noon
hour, as Hobson (Helen Mirren) patiently prepares a meal for the utterly
helpless Arthur (Russell Brand), who couldn't boil water without destroying
half the kitchen.

Indeed, I'd argue that Brand is best used as a supporting player, where his shenanigans can provide an ostentatious counterpoint to calmer leading players; in just such a capacity, he was one of the brighter spots in the mostly forgettable Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Alternatively, Brand completely overwhelmed last year's Get Him to the Greek ... which, I've no doubt, delighted both his fans and anybody who enjoys the similarly overplayed antics of, say, Will Ferrell or Steve Coogan. Larger-than-life comic personalities rarely "act" in their films, as opposed to simply playing unvarying versions of their successful stage personas.

In which case, let the viewer beware.

But Brand manages to be occasionally endearing here, as Arthur Bach: a spoiled-rotten, super-rich, arrested adolescent who never refuses an opportunity to make headlines while concocting new ways to embarrass his mother. Vivienne (Geraldine James) runs the family corporate empire, her husband — Arthur's father — having (wisely?) passed on when his only son was 3. Subsequently raised in a sheltered environment by an absentee single parent too frequently in the boardroom, Arthur has turned unrestrained hedonism into an Olympic-caliber sport, believing that one cannot have too much wine, too many women (often simultaneously) or too much song.

All this is a constant source of irritation to Hobson (Helen Mirren), Arthur's patient, long-suffering but mordantly prickly nanny. Hobson tirelessly cleans up after her charge, having done so for decades. And if this is motivated at least in part by affection, as opposed to a regular paycheck, that's difficult to discern ... initially, anyway.

Oh, yes: Arthur also drinks. Constantly. Excessively. With the intention of humorous effect.

Therein lies a problem.

The original Arthur, brilliantly written and directed by Steve Gordon — who died, tragically, just after the release of this, his big-screen debut — was designed as an homage to 1930s Hollywood screwball comedies, which existed in the same sort of rarefied, fantasyland atmosphere populated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance flicks. This was an era of archetypes rarely seen in our more cynical, obnoxiously politically correct 21st century: dumb blondes, honorable cowboys, hookers with a heart of gold, and — most crucially, for our purposes — lovable drunks. Gordon's "Arthur" was a hit not just because of star Dudley Moore's spot-on performance, but also because the entire film so perfectly imitated this bygone era, while ostensibly being set in the present day.

Even as Arthur fell in love with the plain, working-class woman who taught him about the value of self-reliance — an improbably cast Liza Minnelli, but hey, she made it work — Gordon was careful not to slide too far into the real world. The bubble would have burst.

Winer and screenwriter Peter Baynham, in their remake, exercise no such caution ... and more's the pity.

Moore's Arthur Bach quite possibly remains the last lovable souse successfully minted by Hollywood, before alcohol awareness, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and an overall wave of stern disapproval began to leach all the fun out of our United States. (Honestly, Americans have become so bloody humorless!) No doubt seeking to address this problem, Baynham confronts Arthur's drinking issues head-on, by inserting visits to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and a narrative epilogue — completely different than Gordon's original resolution — that suddenly, jarringly, drags us out of Hollywood make-believe and into real-world "solutions."

And the sound you hear is that of the bubble, bursting.

The film simply collapses at the end, in pursuit of — you can almost feel the quotation marks around this goal — "a resolution we can live with."


The primary story beats, until we hit that point, more or less follow Gordon's original template. Despairing that her wastrel son never will amount to anything, and thus couldn't be trusted to take over the Bach business empire some day, Vivienne orders Arthur into an arranged marriage with Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), a forceful and accomplished woman who'd be ideal as a rapacious CEO. Truth be told, Susan is equally willing to indulge her more carnal appetites, but has the presence of mind to keep such behavior behind closed doors. Her strictest admonition to Arthur: "Don't — embarrass — me. Ever."

Arthur naturally resists this edict from Vivienne — whom he always calls by first name — but is threatened with total disinheritance if he balks. And since he has spent his entire life enjoying the fruits of what $1 billion can buy, this would represent a rather serious blow to his comfortable lifestyle. So he capitulates.

After which, totally by chance, he bumps into a spunky unlicensed Manhattan tour guide named Naomi (Sacramento's own Greta Gerwig) and falls head over heels in genuine love. To the degree that he can express said emotion, anyway, when lurching about in a constant alcoholic haze.

Naomi has greater aspirations: a secret desire to write and illustrate children's books. She lives in a charming, albeit tiny apartment that shakes and clatters every time the nearby train roars past. She shares these digs with her father, a character all but written out of this remake (which is a shame, because I still have fond memories of Barney Martin's performance in said role, in the original).

Naomi more or less succumbs to Arthur's rather erratic charms, at first almost in self-defense, but eventually out of genuine interest and growing affection. Some of these scenes work quite well, most notably a "first date" that takes place in a surreally deserted Grand Central Station: only the two of them, a dining table and a butler bearing a tray with a most amusing main course. The scene even unfolds to several quiet instrumental bars from the original "Arthur's Theme," which became such a monster hit for Christopher Cross, back in the day. Young viewers won't even notice this, of course, but those who succumbed to "cuddly Dudley's" charms, three decades ago, will smile approvingly.

(The film's press notes claim that Winer and his crew truly emptied Grand Central Station for two precious hours in the middle of the night. If this is true — and it sure seems to be — we have to be impressed, as it adds greatly to the success of this romantic dinner.)

The film's best scenes, though, belong to Mirren: she of the hilariously baleful glances and superbly timed snarky asides. We can see that Hobson's apparent contempt for Arthur is only surface deceit, but he isn't initially aware of that ... at least, probably not on a conscious level. But as the film continues, and Arthur struggles with his unhappy options as a result of developing genuine feelings for Naomi, Hobson allows her chilled, disapproving armor to melt away, exposing rising admiration and grudging respect. Mirren makes this transformation with marvelous subtlety; the acid-tongued one-liners never completely disappear, but the banter becomes more playful.

Brand, never to be outdone in the quick quip department, gives as good as he gets.

Garner is magnificent as a bossy, high-born bee-yatch, and she frankly blows Gerwig right off the screen. The rich fiancée was a smaller role in the original film, because Minnelli — the "name" female co-star — played the working-class "true love" role. But Garner is an established star, while Gerwig is merely rising; that mandates changes ... and they're not entirely successful. Garner enthusiastically occupies this rarefied atmosphere with a deliciously over-the-top performance; Gerwig, in great contrast, is very badly directed. Nothing seems to work with her performance, starting with her underdeveloped character (Baynham's fault) and her clumsy, tin-eared line readings (Winer's fault).

Gerwig is capable of much better; one need look no further than her delightful, wholly natural supporting performance in the recent No Strings Attached. One gets a sense that Winer, making a jump to the big screen — this is his first feature film, after only three years in the TV trenches — put all his effort into controlling Brand, leaving no time to help Gerwig get a better handle on her part.

And another thing: Both Garner and Gerwig are done no favors by make-up artist Eldo Ray Estes, whose hand is roughly 14 times too heavy. Estes applies a level of foundation and highlighting that I'd expect of a stage performance, where one wishes to be seen by folks in the nose-bleed section of the second balcony. But film is a medium of tight close-ups, and Garner and Gerwig too frequently look like little girls who've raided their mother's cosmetics case, with disastrous results.

Nick Nolte delivers a hilarious tough-guy performance as Burt, Susan's intimidating father; Luiz Guzmán is amusingly understated as Bitterman, Arthur's chauffeur and frequent crony-in-chaos. The ghastly make-up issues aside, the technical credits are well delivered, with cinematographer Uta Briesewitz adding a candy-coated gloss to iconic Manhattan landmarks such as Pershing Square, 42nd Street, Central Park, Le Cirque, Dylan's Candy Bar, the New York Public Library and the aforementioned Grand Central Station. Arthur's early encounter with the massive bronze Wall Street bull, on the other hand, nearly brings the film to a screeching halt before it even gets a chance to start.

In the final analysis, then, this new Arthur isn't the train wreck I feared, and in fact rises to moments of charm and affectionate delight at times. But such bright spots are overshadowed by Winer's uneven, often clumsy handling of the material, which merely reinforces what many of us already knew: Gordon's 1981 film isn't a wise choice for a remake, for all sorts of reasons. And since the only reason for a remake is to improve upon the original — or at least equal it — then this one must be regarded a failure.

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