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Arthur (2011)

Downer Economy

Steven Gordon's 1981 comedy, Arthur, was one of my dad's favorite movies. Perhaps Dudley Moore's witty and charming portrayal of an alcholic millionaire gave him hope that his own struggles with booze might someday pay off in fantastically hilarious fashion. Or maybe he, like America, just loved John Gielgud (who they'd probably mistaken for John Houseman; and sometimes Alec Guinness).

Whatever the case, I only remember snippets of that film, having not watched it in almost twenty years. This leaves me in a unique position to review Jason Winer's remake: aside from Moore and Gielgud's wonderful chemistry and a performance by Liza Minnelli so bizarre that it might actually have been based on a real-life crackpot, much of the original escapes me.

For better or worse, Winer and screenwriter Peter Baynham have left the outline untouched in their update and made a largely personality- and humor-free version whose greatest innovation is to turn the Gielgud character into a woman. The story is the same, and it's dirt-simple: Russell Brand plays Arthur Bach, a multi-multi-multi-millionaire known for being a drunken public nuisance. His mother, Vivienne (Geraldine James), arranges for him to marry a gold-digging, high-society wannabe named Susan (Jennifer Garner) in order to preserve the dignity of the centuries-old family business.

When he's not busy crashing the Batmobile into the Wall Street bull or hosting orgies on his magnetized hover-bed, he manages to meet and fall in love with an unlicensed Grand Central Terminal tour guide/aspiring children's book artist named Naomi (Greta Gerwig). Vivienne threatens to cut Arthur off from his money if he follows his heart, leaving us with Two Big Questions:

A) Will Arthur choose the cute, smart girl or the outrageous fortune?

B) Will this film finally force me to break my "Never Walk Out on a Movie" rule?

I won't dignify "A" with a response. The answer to "B" is...almost.

I fell asleep in the middle of Arthur, after having popped in the DVD at 8pm; not a good sign. I endured the first hour of Brand's big-gummed, showy attempts at hilarity and the curious talent vacuum it created for the actors around him before finally vowing to trudge through the rest in the morning. For most of the run-time, Arthur is an ugly movie about excess and alcoholism that says nothing new, interesting, or funny about either (not that these issues are inherently funny, but a strong comedy writer can turn tragedy into at least poignant chuckles).

The talent Brand displays here is quite amazing. His performance is terrible, a high-pitched approximation of Dudley Moore's "hammered" voice, crossed with a line delivery that's somewhere between five-year-old girl and asshole socialite. What's special is his singular ability to make the seasoned actors in the cast look like squeamish amateurs. This is the worst performance by Garner that I've seen (her agent really needs to stop booking these Career-driven Shrew roles), and Gerwig, whose brief role in The House of the Devil proved that she has chops, comes off as an indie talent smiling through a mouth full of shit in order to make a name for herself in a big Hollywood role.

I absolutely blame Brand--though I know that doesn't make logical sense, unless there is actually a black hole emanating from those crazy, Tex Avery eyes--because in the few scenes in which he doesn't appear, all of the actors do remarkably well. Gerwig's conversation with Arthur's nanny, Hobson (Helen Mirren) is great not just for this movie, but for any movie. In fact, I'd support an Oscar nod for Mirren for having single-handedly righted this sinking ship. Brand's charisma-sucking phenomenon is truly amazing; like a light switch, when he pops into a scene, the spark and dignity vanish as if they'd never existed.

The only thing that stops Mirren's performance short is the film's writing and direction. I know Arthur is rated PG-13, but not even kids need this much hand-holding. Under normal circumstances, announcing that Hobson is terminally ill in a review would be an unforgivable spoiler. But because Baynham and Winer practically announce it during her second scene, I'm fine bringing it up (those cutaways to Hobson's troubled, concerned looks can only mean two things: cancer, or regret at having signed on to this mess--and Mirren's too classy a performer to betray the craft like that).

I was prepared to write off Arthur as a harsh lesson in the folly of brand-recognition until something quite amazing happened. I realized that the film, like Arthur Bach himself, is an alcoholic: obnoxious, unfunny, and stupid, it flops about in search of a purpose and, incapable of finding one, spirals further into the abyss of self-satisfaction. But in the last act, Arthur--the movie and the character--gets on the wagon. Following Hobson's death, Arthur realizes that it's time to get serious with his life. He calls off the wedding in spectacular fashion, takes a cab to Queens, and sweeps Naomi off her feet.

He tries to, anyway. In a nice surprise, she tells Arthur that she won't be a replacement for his nanny and sends him off to be poor and lonely. They eventually work things out, of course. Six months later, Arthur is attending AA meetings and getting to know average people in a way that doesn't resemble a shoe's relationship to ants. It turns out Brand can play sober and serious pretty well, and I wish to God he'd been called upon to exercise some of that restraint during the first hour-and-a-half.

The closing moments of the movie returned that sick feeling to my stomach, as we learn that Arthur got his inheritance after all; the lesson, I guess, is that one can still be in touch with humanity and be fabulously wealthy, and that being poor and decent is just a bummer. This awkward, tacked-on fairy-tale ending belongs with the first part of the movie--not the second.

That's my biggest disappointment with Arthur, besides it not once being funny. Hollywood seems to have a troubled relationship with the world's current economic woes. On the one hand, it plays politician by churning out movies in which the recession is addressed and characters must come to grips with the handful of money bubbles finally bursting (sweeping markets, houses and lives away on a tide of worthless paper); on the other, it rewards the clueless and/or deviant scumbags at the very top of the pyramid with happy endings that only their monied, elite kind enjoy in real life. Like Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Arthur pays lip service to the working poor but ultimately flips them off in the end.

This may not be an overtly political film, but it is, by nature and circumstance, a socially relevant one. And what is the message here? Like the Wall Street sequel and the criminally gaudy Sex and the City 2, the filmmakers seem to say that, despite global economic uncertainty, everything will be alright for the upper-point-oh-one-percent, and that poverty results in a plucky, salt-of-the-Earth disposition that most people wouldn't trade for all the money in the world. That's how the Arthur leaves Arthur and Naomi--who, at the very last minute, trades in her values for a Batmobile. I suppose having Arthur learn his lessons through hard times, or at least humility, would have been too much of a downer for this aspirational comedy; which is fine. I might even appreciate a movie like that, were it actually funny. But like the hero of our story, the creators are deathly terrified of doing actual work.

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Reader Comments (2)

And yet somehow I managed to really enjoy it. Maybe you slept through the funny part? ;)

August 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie

I picked up from where I left off this morning. Sadly, not even a chuckle. But I'm glad you enjoyed it. That's not sarcasm. Neither is that.

August 20, 2011 | Registered CommenterIan Simmons

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