I can't say I was particularly looking forward to the remake of Arthur. I'd seen the original on HBO at some point as a teen, and it didn't do much for me. I didn't understand the Oscar wins for John Gielgud (Supporting Actor) and Best Original Song win for Christopher Cross' "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)." I never really got Liza Minnelli's appeal, either.
The film fared considerably better when I watched it on Netflix Streaming earlier today. Gielgud's sandpaper dry wit impressed. Liza was more likable than I'd recalled. The song--well, I still hate the song. But the screenplay and direction by Steve Gordon is solid throughout, and Dudley Moore is perfect in the lead role.
Which brings us to the new Arthur and the trepidation I felt even more strongly after watching the original. The commercials and trailers have focused on Russell Brand's Arthur as an even-more cartoony playboy than Moore's version, including over-the-top adventures such as dressing as Batman and driving around in the Batmobile.
I've also never been completely sold on Brand, who at 6-2 stands about a full foot taller than did Moore. I've liked him in small portions, as in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but found him a bit tiring in larger doses. The casting of Jennifer Garner--and her prominent billing on the poster--also seemed strange: This is the role of Susan, the bride in Arthur's arranged marriage, not the female lead. Instead, indie queen Greta Gerwig (who is so "art house" she actually starred in a film entitled "Art House") would be playing the Liza Minnelli role (Linda then, Naomi now) of Arthur's working-class true love.
Only the presence of Helen Mirren, taking over for Gielgud in the gender-switched role of Hobson, left me feeling much hope that the new Arthur wouldn't be a complete wreck.
I was way off. This movie's actually quite good. And if you're factoring in it being a remake (most suck) and a romantic comedy (most suck), the new Arthur is especially impressive. The commercials are doing it a disservice: The new Arthur is very funny throughout its running time, updates the story to modern-day sensibilities in an intelligent fashion, and manages to broaden and expand upon the more dramatic aspects of the original. In some ways, quite honestly, it's a better film.
Hats off in particular to screenwriter Peter Baynham, who handled this tricky assignment with aplomb. His script actually is fairly reverent to the 30-year-old original, selectively using plot lines, scenes and even occasional dialogue where it fits. But he also brings the relationships and sexual/class politics into the 21st century, and finds an intelligent way to address the elephant in the room: in both films, Arthur is an alcoholic.
The original film, for example, has Moore swigging from a bottle of rum in a paper bag while driving on the highway... without any consequences. His alcoholism is treated simply as an aspect of his immaturity. Brand's Arthur never drives drunk--his chauffeur, Bitterman (Luis Guzman in the remake) handles all the driving--but his drinking causes real consequences, and he's forced to address them.
Does that sound too heavy for a romantic comedy? It doesn't play that way, thanks to Baynham's script, savvy performances by the leads, and nuanced direction by Jason Winer (making his feature film debut). It's not surprising that Winer is the co-executive producer (and a regular director) of Modern Family, because Arthur replicates that show's mix of believable character interactions and laugh-out-loud humor.
Anyone who's seen the original will know all the major plot points, because this truly is a remake in that sense. You reach the same destination, you just take a few different roads (including a couple of gender twists).
Arthur, an immature playboy who has never worked a day in his life, will be cut off from the family fortune--close to $1 billion--unless he marries Susan (Garner), whose family ties can be beneficial to the corporation run by Arthur's mother (father in the original). Unfortunately, Arthur has fallen in love with another: Naomi, who runs illegal (albeit popular) tours of Grand Central Station and other NYC landmarks.
The casting is mostly on point. Mirren is pitch-perfect in the plum role of Hobson, giving the relationship with Arthur an intriguing maternal slant absent from the original. Gerwig finds just enough grit in her character to keep Naomi from becoming too pixie-like. And Garner fits perfectly in a role right in her range, providing the toughness and attitude the character of Susan desperately needed in the original.
As for Brand... he's really not too bad. The comic scenes are his forte, of course, and he's a blast throughout those--funny, smart, charismatic, appealing. He's a bit less successful in the dramatic scenes, but still not too bad. We don't quite get a peek into the darkness we know is dwelling deep inside Arthur, but Brand certainly goes a few places he's never gone before and shows promise.
A few small problems hurt the film. It runs a bit long at 110 minutes; an even 100 would have worked better, especially near the end. Those trims would have been welcome in a few scenes around the film's middle where Arthur tries his hand at gainful employment; they felt like studio-mandated bits of broad humor that don't play well with the drier wit and general smarts of the rest. Finally, Nick Nolte appears in a couple of scenes as Susan's tough-guy father, and he's frankly hard to understand.
Despite those issues, the new Arthur really is a lot of fun. Compared to most romantic comedies, it's funnier, smarter, sharper and even occasionally touching, and Mirren's performance is worth at least an Oscar nomination of her own.
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