REVIEW: Unfunny Arthur Mistakes Aggressive Whimsy for Charm
Those of you who don't want to know how Jason Winer's Arthur remake ends should take this opportunity to step over to the liquor cabinet and mix yourself a good, stiff drink -- if you plan on seeing this godforsaken thing, you'll need it. As for the rest of you: In the 2011 Arthur, the lovable, unrepentant, richer-than-Trump drunk originally played by Dudley Moore has morphed, for the worse, into Russell Brand. After shedding his scheming fiancee, losing the parental figure who raised him, and messing things up with the Queens cutie who represents his one chance at true love, happy-go-lucky Arthur realizes he's genuinely lost. Instead of solving the problem by dashing off with his beloved in an expensive vintage car, Arthur enters AA, where, with his earnest testimony, he crushes the movie's last dim twinkle of comic spirit, which was pretty puny in the first place.
Maybe this new Arthur is just the beginning. Imagine how many other pictures can be remade -- or, rather, be made safe -- for the modern era: Scarlett, after her night of confused bliss with Rhett, hightails it over to a rape-crisis center. Lorelei Lee, having decided her obsession with diamonds is shallow and materialistic, adopts an African baby. Stanley Kowalski orders a copy of Rage: A Step-by-step Guide to Overcoming Explosive Anger from Amazon. The possibilities are endless.
The surest way to kill comedy is to protect your audience, in advance, from being offended by it. And that's among the least of the problems with this new Arthur. The 1981 version, written and directed by Steve Gordon (it was his only movie -- he died, at age 43, the following year), is highly imperfect: It's delightful in patches and sentimentally dry in others. But it's still easy to love, particularly for the chemistry between Moore and John Gielgud, as the manservant who nudges Arthur toward something resembling adulthood. The chemistry between Moore and his co-star, Liza Minnelli, is less scintillating, but even that hardly matters. There's plenty of lovely ridiculousness in the original Arthur, like the blissful moment in which Gielgud strides into a humble Queens apartment, assesses its riot of chintz and knicknacks, and purrs, "How rrrrevolting!"
But the 2011 Arthur can't exist just for silliness' sake. There has to be a method to its madness and ultimately, a moral to it, too. And it doesn't make its New York City setting look all that pretty -- even glorious Grand Central Terminal looks a little depressed by the whole enterprise. (The retooled script is by Peter Baynham, who also had a hand in Brüno and Borat; Uta Briesewitz is the DP.)
But the weakest link may be Arthur himself. When we meet Brand's inebriated sweetheart of a bad boy, he's getting ready for a moonlight cruise in his Batmobile (dressed in full Batman regalia) with his driver and sidekick, Bitterman (Luis Guzmán, who wanders into the movie every 40 minutes or so, since Winer seems to have no idea what to do with him). Before we even have any sense of what Arthur's deal is, he's off on a jumbled car chase. Because, you know, why not reboot Arthur with a car chase? After sweet-talking his way out of an obligatory run-in with the cops, he ends up with a blonde floozy who is, the next morning, summarily dismissed by his nanny and caretaker Hobson (Helen Mirren).
Shortly thereafter, he's pressured to meet with his withholding chairwoman-of-the-board mother Vivienne (Geraldine James), who threatens to yank the purse-strings shut unless he marries the hyperambitious yet supposedly suitable Susan (Jennifer Garner). Arthur concedes, reluctantly. Not long after, though, he meets penniless, loopy free spirit Naomi (Greta Gerwig). We know she's a fun girl because she has kitty-cats on her shirt. She also has big dreams: She wants to write children's books. Imagine! Further evidence of adorable zaniness: She wears two wrist watches at once. She pairs ankle socks with high heels. She wraps a candy necklace around her wrist twice so it's -- get this -- a bracelet.
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