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Arthur

April 10, 2011
Arthur

Arthur is a funny, romantic, and charming story of a love that crosses the barriers of class and propriety in New York City. What I can’t quite figure out is who decided it was necessary to remake it with Russell Brand. Everywhere that this new version of Arthur overlaps with the original, it falls short, and everything it does new is extraneous.

Arthur Bach (Brand) is a wealthy playboy in Manhattan; the son and sole heir of a $950 million fortune — actually a bit of a step back from 1981’s $750 million, once you adjust for inflation. He’s also an irrepressible drunk who survives basically by the grace of his driver, Bitterman (Luis Guzmán), and his servant, Hobson (Helen Mirren).

Arthur’s family want him to marry Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), daughter of a self-made billionaire (Nick Nolte). But Arthur meets and falls for working-class girl from Queens, Naomi Quinn (Greta Gerwig). But to have her and blow off Susan — who he’s not the least bit attracted to — he would have to forgo his immense inheritance, which he is ill-equipped to do without.

The basic setup between the two versions is identical, and yet the remake mostly serves to show how the original got it right. Overall the lesson is simple: Arthur is outsize, everyone else is a reserved foil, and the girl from Queens is able to bridge the gap, both appreciating and grounding him at the same time. But this version loses sight of this balanced dynamic tension.

Susan, to start with, is no longer a bland WASP of a girl who is inexplicably enamored of Arthur despite the obvious temperamental mismatch. She is now, in a word, psychotic. Admittedly, there’s no way to pull in a name like Garner’s without significantly expanding the role, but it’s one that really didn’t need expanding. She’s now a conniving, ruthless businesswoman in her own right, with a disturbingly lustful streak to boot. And yet somehow Garner makes an overbearing sex-kitten seem boring where she’s not annoying.

Bitterman is also given the zany tweak. There was something charming about a driver who keeps smiling and opening doors because he knows he’s getting paid either way and has a great sense of humor about watching Arthur’s shenanigans. But Guzmán’s version is slightly dim, and much more directly involved in these escapades.

Hobson is, thankfully, left somewhat acerbic. But as much as I love Dame Helen Mirren, she is no Sir John Gielgud. Her Hobson is also significantly less subtle and more active in her machinations. She is an exasperated nanny instead of a reservedly bemused butler, and it just doesn’t play nearly as well. Her emotions come out much more, and yet she lacks the dry wit and sense of humor that made Gielgud’s Hobson such a joy.

Which brings us to Arthur himself. Brand is, to put it bluntly, a brat. I’m not sure he can actually play any other character in the first place, really. But be that as it may, his Arthur is thoroughly self-involved and dedicated to his own pleasures at the expense of everyone else’s. Moore’s version, on the other hand, wants everyone around him to have as good a time as he does, but he’s just too befuddled to realize he’s the only one laughing. Where Brand careens about, desperately crashing towards his rock bottom, Moore stumbles back and forth, never quite causing so much trouble as consternation.

And that’s the real tonal shift: it’s no longer acceptable for Arthur to be Arthur — that is, a functional alcoholic. He must now by the end of the story realize the error of his ways, reach some level of personal insight, and reform himself. And to do this requires bloating the film in many places, most notably the end. It loses it’s sense of pace and just drags on aimlessly far too often.

It’s also partly as a result of this shift that most of the other changes take place. It’s no longer acceptable for Hobson and Bitterman to act as conscious enablers, and so their characters have to be significantly altered. And with Arthur more churlish and less of a bon vivant, someone else has to expand into that gap, which evidently falls to Susan.

The result is unbalanced and charmless — a whole lot more moon than New York City. The best thing you can do isn’t to fall in love; it’s to rent the original.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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