Remakes are a constant bane in today’s inspiration-deprived Hollywood, but few retreads have been as totally misguided as “Arthur.” At a time when the country’s in a deep economic slump and stories about intoxication manslaughter cases fill the newspapers, resurrecting a comedy about a layabout drunk who wastes his fortune on pointless frivolities is a miscalculation of the first order. The time is long past that we can smile at the tipsiness of Jackie Gleason or Dean Martin, or accept the permanent inebriation of a Frank Fontaine, Foster Brooks or Hal Smith (aka Otis Campbell) as funny.
But the geniuses behind this abysmal picture haven’t stopped there. To replace Dudley Moore they tapped Russell Brand, a one-note slacker who makes the character more repulsive than lovable. Brand sparked the dreary “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” with a canny supporting turn and managed to make “Get Him to the Greek” work reasonably well, but expecting him to carry a movie pretty much on his own was a serious miscalculation. The intense overexposure, combined with the inferior material offered by Peter Baynham’s script, certifies that he’s a flavor of the month that’s passed its shelf life. It’s a certainty Brand won’t match Moore’s achievement in copping an Oscar nomination for the part. And his willingness to strip down to his undies, like Will Ferrell’s, is an urge he should definitely learn to resist.
As for the rest, Helen Mirren doesn’t do much of consequence with the role, of Hobson, Arthur’s nanny, the gender-altered variant of John Gielgud’s butler in the original. It’s even more certain she won’t duplicate his success by winning an Oscar for the performance. And after her turns as “Prospera” in Julie Taymor’s recent “Tempest” and now this, one might speculate that she’s determined to tackle every part the great actor played, but as she’s bringing so little that’s memorable to the party, may we suggest that the project be cancelled.
The other women in Arthur’s life are no more memorable. Geraldine James is rote as his mother, who threatens to cut him off financially unless he marries a woman strong enough to run the company after she’s gone, and Jennifer Garner convincingly dreadful as Susan, the girl she chooses. Greta Gerwig is at least pleasant as the sweet tour guide and aspiring children’s book author he falls for and romances with all sorts of extravagantly stupid expenditures, but she comes across as none too bright. Among the men Luis Guzman is his usual amateur self as Arthur’s chauffeur and partner in mischief, but Nick Nolte is truly embarrassing as Susan’s snarling father. He’s only in a couple of scenes, but I’m certain he’ll feel that’s two too many when updating his resume.
“Arthur” has been directed without distinction by Jason Winer, who gives Brand entirely too much freedom. And it doesn’t even look particularly good. Cinematographer Uta Briesewitz handles the interiors—including Great Central Station and Arthur’s pad—well enough, but the exteriors make New York City a much less attractive place than it usually seems. And there’s certainly nothing on the soundtrack that comes close to Burt Bacharach’s Oscar-winning theme song for the 1981 picture.
Most viewers won’t recall that the first “Arthur” had a terrible sequel. It came out in 1988, and had a subtitle—“On the Rocks.” This time we don’t have to watch for a second movie for the subtitle to be accurate.