Review: ‘Arthur’

Will Leitch
·Editor
We wish people still wore hats like that. Warner Bros.
We wish people still wore hats like that. Warner Bros.

1. In his review of the ill-advised sequel to "Arthur," "Arthur 2: On The Rocks," Roger Ebertpoints out the film's fatal flaw: It has Arthur stop drinking. It might seem odd, in this age of rehab and recovery, to cheer against a man trying to put an end to his destructive drinking, but Ebert convincingly argues that the reason Arthur is interesting, the reason we like him, is because he cannot stop drinking yet still tries to engage and solve the universe, regardless. As Ebert put it: "He embodies, in fact, all the wonderful human qualities that drunks fondly, mistakenly believe the booze brings out in them." That Arthur is filthy rich is beside the point in that film: It's a movie about a drunk.

2. In 1981, you could make a movie about a helpless drunk and not expect him to stop, but in 2011, you absolutely cannot. Which is the central problem of "Arthur," a remake that knows the words, but not the music. Arthur himself is a shameless, immensely likable drunk, who has only survived as long as he has because of the insulation his (unearned) money has provided him. He is likable both in spite of and because of his alcoholism. A 2011 audience, though, is conditioned by Oprah and Dr. Drew and our culture of redemption to see a drunk as a pathetic figure, a problem to be solved. So when we see Arthur slugging a flask, or pouring Maker's Mark in his orange juice, or partying all hours of the night, we know that this can't stand, that he will have to learn the error of his ways by the end of the film. We're not the only ones who know this: So do the filmmakers. Thus, the starry-eyed, fanciful whimsy of the first film is replaced by "all right, when's this guy gonna realize he needs to stop drinking?" It takes all the fun out of it. You haven't changed, Arthur: We have.

3. In other words, if this remake didn't have the "Arthur" name on it, and this generation's high-profile British comic actor (Russell Brand) easily sliding in for another generations' high-profile British comic actor (Dudley Moore), I suspect they would have just written out the drinking all together. They certainly should have. The story of a man-boy billionaire who is forced to decide between love and money is enough of a story without the drinking. Here, it's just a distraction, a weird affectation that the movie simultaneously takes too seriously and doesn't take seriously enough. It casts a pall over the whole movie, making it feel like it's straining too hard to be whimsical, that it's trying to live up to a 30-year-old movie that was playing under different rules all together. I don't mean to harp on the drinking thing, but it's important: It shows how this is an old movie trying to pretend to be a new one. The movie builds itself too many obstructions.

4. Because the movie's steps are so familiar, the cast essentially stands in as a demographic update, a sociological clue as to what our society values, and how our society wants to see itself. Thus, Arthur is no longer controlled by a domineering father; it's his mother now, a CEO who wants him to marry another CEO type (Jennifer Garner), one much like her. Hopson is no longer a butler -- we don't have butlers much anymore -- but a nanny, played by Helen Mirren. Some of the cast fares better than others. Brand is perfectly fine, not as reckless and truly addled as Moore, but still likable and quick with a quip, even if, when he shaves, he looks too much like Weird Al Yankovic for my tastes. Mumblecore actress Greta Gerwig has some geniune moments in the Liza Minelli role; what Gerwig lacks in iconic stature, she makes up for in a certain rawness that the rest of the movie has no interest in matching. Garner and Mirren fare less well: Garner's a caricatured ball-buster, and Mirren, through no real fault of her own, is too feral and energetic to mimic John Gielgud's fragile, soulful performance. (Mirren isn't frail enough yet to realistically waste away; she's too much of a presence, a force, to seem even mortal.) And the less said about Nick Nolte's bloated, growling glorified cameo, the better; the man is too far gone to be anything but a sad satire of what he once was.

5. To pull off a movie like "Arthur" requires a minor miracle, a balancing act of tones that director Jason Winer just isn't up for. (The original "Arthur"'s writer-director, Steve Gordon, had obsessed over his film, finding just the right mix of sadness and silly mirth; he died within months of the film's release.) This is a mainstream comedy, and there's nothing about Arthur, or the people he surrounds himself with, who are even slightly mainstream. So everything gets watered down, everything starts with an idea and then doesn't progress much past it. There's a sequence in which Arthur rents out Grand Central Station for a date, with acrobats and Pez dispensers and the famous whispering gallery, that's such a wonderful notion that it's nearly tragic how much Winer wastes it. But this was an ill-conceived project from the beginning, no matter how hard Brand and Gerwig tries to get around it. "Arthur" is a movie that made sense in 1981, a blast of irrational good cheer at a time the world, and the city, needed it. This feels manufactured, demographically calculated whimsy. Frankly: It'll kind of made me want a drink.

Grade: C