With Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Garner, Luis Guzmán. Directed by Jason Winer. Rated PG-13 for alcohol use throughout, sexual content, language and some drug references. 110 minutes.
If you had no idea that there was a movie called ARTHUR that was a big hit back in 1981, you might find this watered down remake amusing. However, the really good remakes – and there are some – are made because someone has a vision why this story needs to be retold now and what needs to be adapted for modern times. The really bad remakes – of which there are many – are made because the studio already owns the rights to the property and figures, “Why not?”
No doubt there were some high-fives around the executive suite at Warner Bros. when someone came up with the idea of casting Russell Brand as Arthur Bach, an overgrown child who is heir to a corporate empire but would rather stay drunk and pick up prostitutes. It’s not necessarily bad casting, as Brand seems to have made a point of playing clueless inebriates. The question was why do we need a new version of “Arthur” rather than simply watching the original with the late Dudley Moore?
The movie never really answers that question. Instead it strives to make changes to show the movie is up to date. Thus instead of John Gielgud’s Oscar-winning turn as the butler Hobson, we get Helen Mirren as the “nanny” Hobson. It’s the same point. Hobson’s is Arthur’s keeper who will eventually teach him how to take responsibility for himself.
The plot has Arthur having to marry a social-climbing corporate type (Jennifer Garner) who sees the marriage as crassly commercial as does his mother (Geraldine James). His prospective father-in-law (Nick Nolte giving the worst performance of his career) is a thuggish contractor. Meanwhile, Arthur has found a commoner (indie film plain-jane Greta Gerwig in the Liza Minelli) who touches something in Arthur that makes him want to finally be a grown up. Obviously, something has to give.
The problem is that there’s no real point here. In the original, Arthur’s flamboyant irresponsibility was part of the fun. Here, it eventually becomes something that requires him to enter a 12-step program. Likewise, the ordinary woman was simply a working class stiff in the original. Here, she’s an aspiring author whose ambitions make her more worthy of Arthur’s attentions. Even Bitterman (Luis Guzmán), Arthur’s chauffeur, is transformed from bemused bystander to put-upon sidekick. These are changes for the sake of change, just like the changing of Hobson from a man to a woman.
Perhaps the saddest change is that Steve Gordon, who wrote and directed the original film, is given a backhanded credit for “story.” It’s sad because it was Gordon’s big breakthrough that was supposed to launch his career, except that he would be dead a year later at the age of 43. He deserved better than this.
“Arthur” is an utterly disposable remake that will be cycled through its theatrical release, then DVD, then pay-per-view, then cable TV and then finally forgotten, just like remakes of “It Happened One Night,” “My Man Godfrey,” “Sabrina” and other classic romantic comedies have been ignored. There are good remakes. “Arthur” isn’t one of them.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.