The biggest crime committed by Jason Winer’s remake of Arthur, the 1981 Dudley Moore classic, is failing to justify its own existence. Winer clearly either isn’t particularly fond of that staple Moore picture, or he didn’t find inspiration in it; Arthur just goes through the motions, following beat after beat and sequencing from one moment to another until the credits can finally start rolling. There’s little joy present in the moments in between, and what joy there is tends to flow from both Helen Mirren and Greta Gerwig, as the film’s star, Russell Brand, is far too occupied with playing a toned-down version of Aldous Snow instead of a modern rendition of the original character. The results yield occasional chuckles, but for the most part the entire experience is tiresome.
Arthur, for the uninitiated, focuses on its eponymous character, a millionaire playboy who essentially spends his time being a tabloid darling. After crashing the Batmobile during a chase with the police, Arthur’s mother, Vivienne (Geraldine James), delivers him an ultimatum: marry Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), her shrewd and ambitious assistant, or lose his inheritance. Arthur, being a man stuck in a state of limitless spoiled arrested development, agrees, and then by change bumps into Naomi (Greta Gerwig), a quirky and carefree young woman who runs an illegal tour through New York City’s most famous landmarks. He falls in love; suddenly, the wedding becomes more complicated.
The main issue with Winer’s direction for the film is that he never says anything new about the subject or tweaks the material to be relevant. Maybe a simple, well-executed retelling of the original story could have sufficed, but there’s so much today that Arthur speaks to– the housing crisis and general unrest over the relative positions of the wealthy elite compared to those of the middle and lower classes, fascination with celebrity lives and particularly tabloid journalism/sensationalism– that seeing Winer slap his blinders on and just mindlessly plow through the script becomes frustrating almost immediately. So the question hanging over Arthur throughout its running time is “why?”, and very quickly we realize that there is no good answer.
Arthur didn’t have to be overtly topical to be successful. It could have kept ideas and concepts stored in the background, quiet and unobtrusive, and maybe it would have felt like a more whole movie– or at least a movie with a purpose. In fact, Arthur could have had zero focus on the thematic and just been an outright funny film, and it still would have probably been a more worthy project. But there’s absolutely no point in casting a performer like Russell Brand in a movie that doesn’t have a hard-R rating; he’s at his best when unchained and vulgar, unapologetic in his offensiveness and willing to go to lengths to get a rise out of an audience. (His full Twilight joke, censored at the MTV Music Video Awards but told in full at a performance at the Wilbur Theater in Boston just prior to the release of Get Him to the Greek, is pure magic.) Instead, though, we’re treated to a very muzzled Brand spouting mostly one-liners that would feel more at home in a Saturday Night Live skit based on the character. It’s almost thoroughly vanilla stuff.
The problem lies squarely in a script that’s intent on not upsetting anybody. Brand himself makes a fine fit in the role of the alcoholic Arthur; he worked well enough in Forgetting Sarah Marshal and Get Him to the Greek, after all, and that seems to be the very reasoning behind his casting. But there’s no point in casting someone known for a specific shtick if they’re going to be kept on a short leash. Put bluntly, Brand only performs to a fraction of his ability, and while I’ll put most of the blame for that on his director and on the screenwriter, the best actors know how to make the most of their situations. Here, Brand for the most part flounders with material clearly not meant for someone of his sensibilities– although one or two jokes (particularly one involving Jesus and nails) do hit home, they’re the rare exceptions.
Arthur isn’t all bad. Helen Mirren, in the role of Hobson, proves to be highly entertaining and watchable, often out-funnying the film’s leading man. The character’s gender swap doesn’t strike me as being especially necessary, but then, anything that allows a film to include Mirren in its cast could be construed as strictly necessary. She’s delightful to watch, stern, businesslike, and intolerant of Arthur’s tomfoolery, and yet Mirren still finds Hobson’s maternal love for her charge. Falling on the same end of the spectrum of women in Arthur’s life is Gerwig, playing Naomi with an wide-eyed yet grounded outlook on life whose sense of whimsy is tempered by the tough realities she faces struggling to provide for herself and her father. She’s rather adorable and occasionally luminous here, childlike but not childish and certainly more of an adult than Arthur. Her few scenes with Mirren play wonderfully, and after a point I began to wish the film was all about them.
Unfortunately, they’re just side characters on Arthur’s emotional journey, and they cannot save Winer’s film from itself. Halfway through the picture, I began to wonder if maybe Arthur would have been better off if the particulars of its plot– the wealth, the marriage ultimatum, the principal character’s drunken money-fueled antics– had been excised and the entire story became turned into its own beast rather than another soulless Hollywood remake with no desire in distinguishing itself from the original film in any substantive way. Brand and Gerwig and Mirren do have chemistry with one another; maybe something special could have been mined from that instead of the by-the-numbers movie we’re left with here if the minds behind Arthur had been interested in anything more than a quick, easy, and painless release.