Arthur is less without Dudley Moore
Though not without redeeming qualities, the new “Arthur,” a remake of the 1981 film, lacks the effortless charm of its predecessor. While the first film didn’t rise to great heights, Dudley Moore’s drunken heir to a fortune, is genial viewing. Like Moore, Arthur incorporated fab piano skills into his daffy musings, linking him, at least spiritually, to singer Liza Minnelli, who played an aspiring actress and Moore’s love interest in the first “Arthur” (imagine the lively gatherings around the after hours piano).
Taking up Moore’s mantle, Russell Brand steps into the role for this remake. Brand isn’t without certain roguish charms (perfectly suited to last year’s “Get Him To the Greek”), though he lacks Moore’s lovability. Where Moore fractured his lines with great style, Brand’s comic sensibility seems like an extension of his long arms and legs as he swings from joke to joke, eyes and mouth agape.
Arthur, essentially a remittance man, spends much of his time drunk. During the intervening three decades between these two films, alcoholism as disease has gained wide acceptance. Consequently, the new Arthur is rarely seen drunk. His wild parties are depicted in their aftermath, and we see him attend Alcoholics Anonymous.
Where the first film was largely a love story between Arthur and his long-suffering butler, played by the wonderfully restrained John Gielgud, the remake struggles to create a semblance of that relationship between Arthur and his nanny, Hobson (Helen Mirren). Casting Mirren as Brand’s foil looks good on paper, but on screen Mirren’s large personality is hemmed in by the script’s constraints.
Rounding out the supporting cast, Jennifer Garner appears as Susan, a social-climbing heiress. She is determined to marry Arthur because doing so ensures she will one day administer the family’s billion dollar charitable trust, currently run by Arthur’s cold-fish mother (Geraldine James). The position also ensures a vaunted place among Manhattan’s elite. Garner’s portrayal, as Arthur’s manipulative and smart fiancee, benefits from the character’s single-minded pursuit of her ambition. On the other hand, Nick Nolte as her father, plays a character that whose threatening behavior toward Arthur is better suited to “The Sopranos.”
Though Arthur’s mother orders her son to either marry Susan or lose a billion dollars, Arthur’s intrinsic goodness prevents him from going gracefully into that good night. Following orders becomes even tougher after Arthur meets Naomi (Greta Gerwig – the new and improved Zooey Deschanel), whose bootleg tours of Grand Central Station ferret out the whimsy of its architectural features. Gerwig’s pert and quirky love interest yields one of the film’s more pleasing interludes, even if Naomi is saddled with the saccharine aspiration of writing children’s books.
Happily Mirren and Gerwig generate sparks and real warmth on their journey from mutual suspicion to mutual admiration.
Tasteful humor compared to the vulgar comedies that frequently hold sway, the film does its best to update the premise while retaining the original story’s momentum. Those familiar with Russell Brand wouldn’t expect his humor to skew toward an older demographic, but then, the Brits have a way of defying our expectations.