Jason Winer, of Modern Family-fame, makes a respectable big screen directorial debut with Arthur, a remake of the 1981 film by the same name. While it is by no means the most original film of the spring, Arthur is an amusing romp that kicks-off the summer movie season on a light note.
The film begins with Arthur Bach, played by Russell Brand, loading a monogrammed liquor flask into the utility belt of a Batman suit. He is accompanied by his chauffeur, Bitterman, played by Luis Guzman, baring mid-drift in a Robin costume. The two then proceed to crash the Joel Schumacher-era Batmobile into the Wall Street Bull. A witty exchange with police officers and a scene at a benefit with Arthur’s mother Vivienne and her business associate Susan Johnson, played by Geraldine James and Jennifer Garner respectively, lead us to believe that this is an average night on the town for Arthur, and that these stunts are costing the Bach corporation billions in investments.
Arthur gets out of jail and pays bail for everyone else in the prison as well, and attempts to halt the recession by handing out free money from an ATM. We fast forward to the aftermath of a huge party at Arthur’s penthouse where Hobson, Arthur’s butler and nanny, played by Helen Mirren, wakes the hung-over guests, deletes incriminating photos from their phones and generally looks after her idiot man-child charge. Hobson informs Arthur that his mother has demanded a formal meeting with him to discuss the future of the Bach Corporation. When he arrives, she issues him an ultimatum: marry Susan Johnson to reassure shareholders that the Bach Corporation has a sound future, or completely forfeit his nine hundred fifty million dollars inheritance.
Desperate to maintain the vast riches that define his indulgent lifestyle, Arthur reluctantly agrees to marry Susan, even though the two have an unsuccessful romantic history together. To rebel against his mother’s meddling, Arthur squanders corporate money by bidding against himself at a silent auction and wandering about the town rather than seeing to his engagement. Fate intervenes, and Arthur runs into the love of his life, Naomi, played by Greta Gerwig, who is working as an illegal tour guide. You can see the arc, and its inevitable conclusion, coming from a mile away: Does Arthur marry Susan to save his millions, or does he forsake the money for the sake of the right girl?
As you would expect of a PG-13 rating, this is a cleaner, gentler comedy than Get Him to the Greek. But rockstar grade debauchery and substance abuse are still staples of Brand’s comedy, even though those elements are conspicuously absent from the theatrical trailer, which presents him more as an innocent man-child. Speaking of trailers, the commercials give away many of the best moments, such as Garner being trapped beneath a magnetic bed by the back of her corset and Mirren flooring Brand with a single punch as he has a boxing lesson with Evander Holyfield.
In fact, it would have been better to see a movie that focuses on Hobson’s character, since Mirren steals the show as Arthur’s sassy, capable nanny. Their verbal sparring matches are the highlights of the film, and their tender moments have more heart than Arthur’s by-the-numbers romance with Naomi. Gerwig gives a bland performance that further dilutes a role that feels broadly drawn and watered down to begin with. By contrast, Garner’s performance as a calculating virago is a lot of fun to watch, and Nick Nolte’s brief stint as her macho-man psychopathic father are good for a few laughs, too. Russell Brand gives an exuberant lead performance that is especially strong when he indulges in self-absorbed monologues reminiscent of his stand-up routines, though there are times when his manic energy, gleeful self-destruction and irresponsibility wear thin.
Characters frequently point out that Arthur is smarter than he acts, and his quips confirm as much. Consequently, what should be endearingly willfully ignorance comes across as blatantly obnoxious attention-whoring. Even if Arthur was just an excitable, clever layabout, he would come across as a jerk, and flaunting his fortune just adds fuel to the fire. Similarly, the movie trots out props from older, more expensive Warner Bros. movies, but beyond the opening batmobile scene, they serve as simple sight-gags. Both the character and the production values are under-utilizing their potential. This is a dumb comedy by nature, but it could have been a more creative one.
Clocking in at slightly less than two hours, Arthur also feels a little longer than it should. The movie shows its age with surprising faithfulness to the original film’s formula which feels simpleminded and dated. The film initially and incisively mocks the typical formula of sobering up, growing up and finding a real job but eventually falls prey to all three. Arthur dismisses his first attempt at attending an AA meeting as horribly depressing, only to embrace the process in earnest a few minutes later.
All in all, the new Arthur is a fun little film with several solid performances, suitably expensive set-pieces and some bitingly witty dialog. Mirren’s sharp tongue alone makes the film worth watching, and fans of Brand will not be disappointed by his dialog, but you can afford to catch this one after it leaves theatres.