4.09.2011

REVIEW: Arthur (Jason Winer, 2011)

How does one transport Dudley Moore's hilariously offensive and financially irresponsible man-boy to these more politically correct and economically conservative times? By watering down his vodka, it would seem. The cultural shift from 1981 to 2011 is palpable from scene one, in which our new Arthur already appears to have a set, almost altruistic moral code contrary to that of the Arthur we were introduced to as he picked up prostitutes. Would it be so difficult to like this character today were he less, well, ostensibly likable? Do we really need to send him to Alcoholics Anonymous (literally)?

Russell Brand, who attests to loving the original film, performs fairly as the comparatively sober incarnation of the billionaire, though an uncomfortable family-friendly restraint is apparent. Without the constant laughter and with quips fewer and farther between than those of 1988's "Arthur 2: On the Rocks", Brand's Arthur is less enamored with the mere state of being and conducts himself with somewhat greater purpose. This, more or less, eliminates any character arc he might have traveled. Still, for fans of the British comedian, there are several quite amusing moments attributable to Brand's distinctive style and several others for which, if one's eyes were closed, one might think Dudley Moore himself had re-inhabited the screen.

Brand's supporting cast is hit-or-miss. Most outstanding, perhaps most surprisingly so, is Greta Gerwig's reinvention of Liza Minnelli's character, Linda, here renamed Naomi. In another modernizing damper she is altered from a desperate waitress caught stealing to an unlicensed tour guide with a dream, but the actress' subtle blend of feisty Minnelli-isms and contemporary vulnerability is a winning one. Her rival in romance, Susan, is portrayed by Jennifer Garner. This is fitting as Susan is meant to be distasteful and Garner has always been kind of scary, even through her categorization as one of America's sweethearts. Garner does well to avoid our sympathies, shamelessly tromping into a stilted antagonist's role. Stilted though it may be through brazen plot points, the Susan character sees one of the few good updates in that this time she's given real motivation to force Arthur into marriage. Previously we had little clue why the heiress would want the drunken child, we just knew it was the case and Arthur stood to lose his inheritance were he to refuse. Of course the most obvious alteration is the in caretaker Hobson's gender. Hobson was originally, brilliantly portrayed by the great John Gielgud and is here reinvented by the great Helen Mirren. This sends several ripples through the film's few subtleties regarding Arthur's parental scenario. For example this time his father is long dead and his mother is head of his family company, thus creating maternal as opposed to paternal subtext between the authority figures. At its base - and I hate to say it - Mirren puts too much emotion into Hobson. Where Gielgud was so gloriously deadpan, she appears genuinely offended when, say, Naomi shows up in a less-than-refined dress. Finally, there's Nick Nolte. I'm still half-convinced that since 2003's "Hulk" Nolte hasn't been aware of his continued involvement in movies. I think he's escorted to film sets in drunken stupors and allowed to behave as he deems fit while camera crews attempt to capture workable material. In other words, Nick Nolte is awesome and easily one of the shining points here.

Now, none of this is to say this remake is invalidated through changes to its beloved predecessor. Some of the changes, like the mentioned motivation for Susan, are beneficial. Thing is, most of the changes seem to have been made in the interest of not offending the masses, where the whole point of "Arthur" is to offend! More often than not the writing, while honorarily similar in much of its humor, feels afraid of going too far; or, for that matter, even cautiously approaching the proverbial line. It's certainly not that Helen Mirren isn't allowed to put forth her own interpretation of a classic character, it's just that - particularly with many of the same lines to deliver - it's practically impossible to disassociate it from Gielgud's ingenious performance and her interpretation doesn't work nearly as well. As a side effect of all these amendments, the themes that made the 1981 film as interesting as it is - of happiness in both wealth and poverty, appreciating parents and accepting maturity - become detrimentally diluted.

On the bright side, this "Arthur" is decent family entertainment for Brand fans and those not overly attached to the merits of the original, and features its share of chuckle-worthy and even sweet moments added the awesomeness of Nick Nolte.

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