Arthur (with Russell Brand)
I don’t go into remakes expecting very much; not because I am inherently offended by their existence (I’ll take a good movie over an original movie almost every time), but simply because, again and again through the years, they just haven’t been very good. That’s why it’s easier to list the names of the rare few that have ended up being worthwhile – LET ME IN, or OCEAN’S ELEVEN, or THE MALTESE FALCON – over the innumerable thousands that didn’t.
The new ARTHUR, thankfully, isn’t a failure. That’s not to say that it’s a replacement for the classic 1981 original, but it can stand on its own as an engaging and worthwhile piece of entertainment.
The plot follows the broad strokes of the original. Arthur Bach (Russell Brand) is a dissolute billionaire manchild, a thirty-five-year-old going on fourteen. He buys replica Batmobiles and drag-races them through downtown Manhattan with the police in hot pursuit; he buys President Lincoln’s vintage suit at a Christie’s auction and wears it home on a whim. He brings home models and princesses and forgets their names. Much of this is done while drunk. Never far behind on these escapades are Arthur’s chauffeur Bitterman (Luis Guzman, in another of his specialty sidekick roles), who seems phlegmatically resigned to a fate of dressing up in Robin costumes at his boss’s whim, and his acid-tongued butler/nanny/jailer Hobson (Helen Mirren, in the role originated by Sir John Gielgud), always right behind Arthur, picking up after his messes, paying for any property damages, and ready with an aspirin and a seltzer water on the morning after.
Arthur could be an intolerable figure, but Brand navigates difficult waters to make him likeable; the character’s saving graces are his strangely perceptive intelligence and cheerful disregard for authority, both of which are offended when his prim and distant mother delivers an ultimatum: marry the wealthy Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner) and secure the future of the Bach company, or be disowned. Arthur despises the cold and ruthless Johnson and she returns the favor in kind, but wants the prestige of the Bach name, the prestige that growing up the daughter of a construction worker who made something of himself has not granted. A meeting with the father in question, Burt Johnson (Nick Nolte, well-cast as a gravelly maniac), does little to ease Arthur’s mind.
An escape presents itself in the form of Naomi (Greta Gerwig), whom Arthur meets while she is conducting a paid tour of Grand Central Station without a city permit. Naomi is smart, effervescent, and shares Arthur’s childlike sense of fun, but she is also proudly working-class, living in Queens and taking care of her elderly father; she knows when the fun has to stop and knows, too, that Arthur does not. That groundedness, that worldliness, ultimately helps save the character from being a bohemian indie cliché, which in turn gives the movie the emotional core it needs. Arthur loves Naomi, and professes it as sincerely as an irresponsible pampered drunk can; Hobson is dubious, as is Naomi herself, Susan and her father are enraged, and Mrs. Bach will hear nothing of it. And from that, the movie spins a plot to gamely occupy the next ninety minutes.
That plot may not have a whole lot of surprises, but it does lead to many genuine laughs. Director Jason Winer has taken the right approach here; he doesn’t do anything fancy or showy, he just appears to have showed up to work with a solid and well-crafted script and gotten out of the way while the talented actors on display do their thing. Mirren seems to have a lot of fun with a role that a woman who has played the Queen might consider beneath her dignity. Brand wisely does not try to mimic Dudley Moore’s rosy-cheeked, Keebler-elf performance, but brings his own spin to Arthur as an intelligent and lonely man who is consistently underestimated by everyone closest to him. The script, the director, the cast; these are the fundamentals of a good movie, and the reason most remakes fail is because they think a borrowed name and a borrowed story will be enough. ARTHUR doesn’t forget those, and that is why it works.