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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Have A Drunken Laugh Or Two With ‘Arthur’


Arthur = 2 ½ out of 5
Naomi:  You seem to have a lot of fun.
Arthur:  It’s my calling.
Arthur puts itself in a difficult place when it comes to evaluating it.  One of the best things I can say about Arthur is that a lot of people laughed really hard in my theater, and that does not make them wrong.  However, the percentage of those people who had seen the original 1981 Arthur was probably very low.  That film is superior, but this update has some genuinely funny moments.  Honestly, taking away all of the comparisons and mindsets one may feel they need to be in to watch this film, what it comes down to is how much they like Russell Brand’s comedic antics.  There are other factors too, but the film will ultimately rely on how you view this good-natured, drunken billionaire.
 


So in this film, Russell Brand plays Arthur Bach, a rich playboy, constantly drinking and running amok around New York.  His drunken nature and flamboyant personality leads him to getting constant amounts of attention, as far as the press is concerned, which is very much frowned upon by his mother, Vivienne (Geraldine James) and the business empire she is in charge of.  Despite attempts from Arthur’s stern nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren) to make a proper man out of him, Arthur would still just rather have fun.  This leads to an ultimatum, Arthur is forced to choose between being disowned by his family, leaving him to fend for himself or continue being rich by marrying a strong business woman, Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), who Arthur dislikes immensely.  The plot thickens when Arthurs actually falls in love with a caring, working-class woman, Naomi (Greta Gerwig).  Arthur is now forced to grow up for the first time in his life, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has to put down the bottle.


Things have changed in the thirty years separating both versions of this film.  It is most evident in the marketing, which simply depicts Arthur as an exuberant, playboy man-child; avoiding any indication that in every scene in the trailer, he is in fact drunk.  Dudley Moore’s Arthur would drink nonstop, drive himself, and do double and triple takes before settling on an idea.  Brand’s Arthur has his trusty chauffeur, Bitterman (Luis Guzman), constantly driving him around with his decisions stemming more from what flashy way he can spend his money for that particular day.  The film even goes to the lengths of sobering up Arthur, becoming more in line with what is considered to be the appropriate standard for today’s audiences.  It is a daunting task to have Brand attempt to match up to the role that propelled Dudley Moore into superstardom back in the 80s, but he does what he can, using his familiar shtick.  Personally, I find Brand funny.  As he is the film’s headliner, this is the make-or-break aspect, and while I will always prefer Moore in the role, Brand fans who are also newcomers to this story should be satisfied with him, at least.


As far as the supporting roles go, there are a lot of hit-or-miss bits in the way these characters are written.  Most notably is the part of Hobson, now played by Helen Mirren (originally played by John Gielgud, who won an Oscar for the part).  Hobson is supposed to be a prickly, mentor figure for Arthur, which is handled superbly by Mirren.  Unfortunately, the bond created in this film between the two of them, especially considering Hobson’s overall arc, did not feel nearly as strong as the original (I am honestly trying to avoid constant comparisons, but really – how can you?).  There is certainly a playful meanness that I enjoyed in Hobson’s various quips to Arthur, but it’s a fault of the screenplay as a whole that reduces the impact she should have had.


With the other roles – Greta Gerwig (of modern indie film fame) is in the Liza Minelli role, replacing her tough and quirky nature with that of a manic, pixie, dream girl, matching up to Arthur’s whimsical nature.  Of all the characters Brand needed to interact with, I appropriately found the person he is supposed to be in love with to be the most effective pairing.  Gerwig’s warmth brings out much of the film’s best qualities.  On the other side of things, Jennifer Garner is saddled with a strangely written version of the Susan Johnson character.   While the original established Susan as attractive, but boring, this version has her playing a shrewish, sex-crazed businesswomen.  To make things worse, you have Nick Nolte stepping out of…I don’t know where, to play Susan’s crazy, hostile father; only justified by repeating the fact that he used to be a small scale construction worker from Pittsburg, but has earned his success.  Finally, seeing Luis Guzman do anything is usually a joy, I just wish he got to do more here.


 To step away from any pretense involving the original for a second, this film is essentially a very simple romantic comedy that revolves around the lead character making a choice between money and love.  On that level, it is harmless fun.  Now add in the world these characters exist in, where New York allows a ridiculous drunkard to do whatever he wants with no consequence, including riding around in famous movie cars (I should note that it’s probably not a good message to send when you use the costume and vehicle from Batman and Robin).  This creates the world of a fantasy comedy, and it will again depend on how much you enjoy watching these characters, in order to determine how enjoyable you find the film.  Director Jason Winer (who is mostly known for his direction of many episodes of Modern Family) has a good enough approach to creating a play land for Arthur, but the film does go on a bit long as well.  I do think a major flaw is in the film’s wedding climax, with some over-the-top moments mixed with poorly developed, sudden changes of heart.  As much as I find this film to be harmless fun, it is this aspect that forces my hand the most.


Getting back to what I think holds as a constant, the theater I was in had many people laughing hard during the film.  While the reaction so far has been pretty harsh from the critical perspective, I think a lot of it derives from comparison to the original (which I too am guilty of) and opinions on Brand’s comedic persona.  While I really like the original Arthur, I do think the story is good enough to support an update (I am so far past the insistence of remakes that I can only nod or shake my head at this point).  Unfortunately, I only think the film is decent, harmless fun…drunken fun, but I also still acknowledge that it has a crowd pleasing charm.  The original Arthur is currently on Netflix Instant Watch by the way, but if you really like Russell Brand or want to see a fun date movie, you can do worse.

Employer:  Do you know how to use Excel?
Arthur:  No.
Employer:  Powerpoint?
Arthur:  No.
Employer:  Outlook?
Arthur:  Generally positive, but I have down days, just like anyone.

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