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Wednesday
Aug242011

Miracle Mile (1988)

Worst Responders

Years from now, I imagine people will ask each other, "Where were you when Steve Jobs retired from Apple for the second time?"

My answer will be, "Writing about a terrible nuclear-holocaust movie."

It hurts to write those words. When I first saw Miracle Mile at age thirteen, I thought it was a harrowing triumph of acting and tense direction. This was during my "white lights, no cities" phase, when I obsessed over any movie that featured bombs dropping. From The Day After to By Dawn's Early Light to this film, I couldn't get enough of barren, nightmare landscapes and the dregs of humanity clawing each others' eyes out to survive.

The problem with watching movies as a kid is that children have no perspective. Had I seen the Star Wars prequels at the right age, I might have regarded them as highly as I do the Holy Trilogy today because I didn't have the breadth of knowledge or ability to recognize imperfections that I do now. Same thing with Miracle Mile: I used to love Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham as doomed young lovers trying to make their way out of Los Angeles during World War III. I still love the concept, but having just watched the movie again for the first time in twenty years, I can barely see past the corniness and desperation in writer/director Steve De Jarnatt's screenplay.

The film opens with Harry (Edwards) narrating a montage of his first encounter with Julie (Winningham), whom he follows around a museum all day. They meet, fall in like, and have three dates, which we don't see. One evening, they make plans to go out after Julie's late shift at a local diner. Harry oversleeps and rushes to meet Julie anyway (yes, Harry's the kind of self-involved dork who assumes girls just wait around for hours on end, in the hopes that the guys who stood them up will eventually show).

After getting Julie's number from another waitress , Harry calls her apartment from a pay phone and leaves a message (wait: after three dates, they still haven't exchanged numbers? Jesus, never mind...). Moments later, the phone rings and Harry answers. On the other end is a panicked young man who screams about launch codes and impact timelines. He'd dialed the wrong area code when trying to reach his dad, and ended up giving a complete stranger the best/worse piece of insider information in history.

Harry stumbles back into the diner and recounts his story to a cast of Wacky, 3am Angelinos, including the sassy waitress, nervous stewardess, sexist sanitation workers, and a wealthy stock broker played by Denise Crosby. After a few minutes of talking into the brick-sized cell phone she carries in her totally wired briefcase, she confirms the nuke story and announces that she's just chartered a helicopter to take the entire group to a cargo plane bound for Antarctica.

Instead of following this amazing crew to the coldest regions of the planet and watching them fall apart like a late-80s version of Lost, we're sidelined by Harry's real-time quest to find Julie and get her to safety. Because this happens in real-time, much of the adventure is confined to about two city blocks. The couple reunites and says goodbye to Julie's squabbling, old parents before heading to the helipad on top of an insurance company's headquarters. There, they meet two stoned Yuppies and a pair of machine-gun-toting lesbians, all of whom are in the process of Tetris-ing a Wal-Mart into what looks like a model helicopter--only one snag: none of them knows how to fly.

Harry leaves Julie on top of the building and sets out to find a pilot. He has amazing success, breaking up a pre-dawn aerobics class by waving a gun around; a gym patron agrees to help, as long as he can bring his boyfriend. On the way back to the rendezvous, Harry sees Julie running down the street and--

Aw, hell, we're almost at the end of the movie.

The one positive thing I can say about Miracle Mile is that it doesn't shy away from the Total Destruction ending that its genre dictates. But even this is problematic, since Harry begins the film by telling us this touching story about a great girl he met. When does he do this? After he dies? Is Harry a ghost? If so, why don't he and Julie tell their story together? Do they not end up in the same place?

These questions are both more entertaining and less ridiculous than the events of the movie. I can't convey how silly and over-acted this thing is. You can play several fun rounds of "Before They Were Famous" by spotting actors like Mykelti Williamson and Kurt Fuller, but I'd advise you to mute the TV first. No one escapes this picture with their dignity intact.

Okay, Tangerine Dream isn't mortally wounded. Their score is a slightly hipper version of the music they did for Risky Business. And I love that movie, so I'll project some good will onto this project.

Imagine a cast of solid actors hamming it up for ninety minutes before being blown to smithereens (and maybe drowning in the La Brea Tar Pits), and you've got the skeleton of Miracle Mile. The muscle is comprised of a cheesy romance written with the passion and life experience of a cloistered nun and bursts of spectacular Serious Acting that I guarantee will make you cover your mouth and/or eyes.

The lesson here is this: the next time a thirteen-year-old raves to you about how awesome a new movie is, throw them a look that suggests things could get violent. For best results, do this while yelling, "You don't now shit!".

They'll thank you later.

Tuesday
Aug232011

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

'Til Death Do Us Start

For me, the best and most embarrassing part of being a film critic is writing about really cool movies that I should have seen way before I got around to watching them. I've stunned people with my limited knowledge of Woody Allen's oeuvre, and can count on both hands the number of times I've heard, "You've never seen Cool Hand Luke?" I never know how to react, beyond shrugging and insisting that such-and-such movie is at the top of my list (right behind whatever Hellraiser sequel is currently streaming).

Yesterday, I watched James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, the follow-up to another classic film I've yet to see. I've heard this described as one of the all-time best horror films, so I decided to skip the original and jump right to the good stuff. Fortunately, there's a handy re-cap of Frankenstein in the beginning that's handled in a way I absolutely did not expect.

The movie opens in the grand estate of Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), who's just finished hosting a small dinner with his friends, the Shelleys, Mary (Elsa Lanchester) and Percy (Douglas Walton). Byron congratulates himself on being the world's premiere debaucherous pervert, haughtily rolling his "R's as if practicing for a cunnilingus marathon. He stops short, remembering a story that Mary wrote involving a monster stitched together from the remnants of the dead and brought to life by lightning. He asks her to recount the tale.

With one of the creepiest smiles I've ever seen, Mary gives a condensed history of Dr. Frankenstein's monster, which is presented as a montage of the first film's events. The story ends with Frankenstein (Colin Clive) being tossed over the side of a mill by his freakish creation, The Monster (Boris Karloff). A horde of angry, German villagers burns the structure to the ground, allegedly killing the beast. Byron presses Mary for more, and she picks up the story with some of the villagers inspecting the rubble while others transport the battered but breathing doctor back to his family's castle.

Of course, The Monster is still alive. And he's pissed. Gone is the confused, misunderstood giant: he's been reborn as a straight-up killer, emerging from the watery depths of the well under the mill to roam the countryside. He takes out two nosy villagers right away, and scares another, who runs to tell everyone else that they need to finish the job.

After a couple of awkward encounters with paranoid, gun-happy citizens, The Monster happens upon the cabin of a blind, monk-like hermit (O.P. Heggie), who welcomes the company. The kind, old man teaches his guest how to talk, drink, and smoke, and it's here that I finally understood why Karloff is a legend.

The Monster isn't just a mindless predecessor to Jason Voorhees (though I can definitely see where C.J. Graham got inspiration for the psycho's body language in Friday the 13th Part VI); rather he's a frustrated spirit incapable of expressing how awful it is to stumble around in a shell made up of random, expired people. Karloff conveys his need to re-learn the art of humanity through subtle facial gestures and mannerisms that made me forget I was looking at an actor in fright makeup.

Before long, The Monster is discovered and hauled back to the village. Dr. Frankenstein, meanwhile, receives a visit from an old colleague named Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who persuades him to try his experiment again--this time with a partner. Pretorius has dabbled in resurrection himself, but can't come up with anything better than miniature people that he dresses in costumes and keeps in domed glass jars. The scene in Pretorius' office where he unveils his creatures is stunning; the visual effects team creates an utterly convincing environment that kept me guessing as to how Pretorius could so easily interact with these pets without the obvious use of screens or cutaways. I'm still puzzled.

Pretorius arranges for Frankenstein's wife, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), to be kidnapped. As further insurance that the fragile doctor won't renege on his commitment, he frees The Monster from the castle's dungeon and presents him as a far angrier and intelligent beast than before. Using a stolen corpse and the still-fresh heart of a peasant, the doctors prepare their lab's equipment to receive the re-animating gift of lightning. What emerges from the mummy-like body wrappings is a tragically beautiful woman, The Monster's Bride (also played by Lanchester, who is officially uncredited in this role). She surveys the lab, the doctors, and, finally, The Monster and lets out that famous, other-worldly scream.

I won't spoil the ending for the three of you who, like me, will come to this movie late. Suffice it to say, Bride of Frankenstein surprised the hell out of me; first, by not introducing the titular character until the last five minutes, and then by...allowing what happens to happen.

It's easy to see why this film is so highly regarded, even today. In an era of 3D showiness and "more is more" evisceration effects, the subtle, mind-bending horrors of Bride of Frankenstein really stand out. You can call this old-fashioned filmmaking, but I'd be willing to bet this movie would be a hit if Universal pushed for a two-week, limited re-release. I realize I'm giving horror audiences way more credit than many people think they deserve, but above all, I think what draws fans to scare-shows is a desire to be wowed and creeped out. And there is plenty of unsettling weirdness to be found here.

For one thing, the movie's historical context can't be ignored. In a bizarre case of cosmic coincidence, the filmmakers tell a story about a German madman experimenting on people he deemed inferior in the hopes of building a master race--just four years before World War II. James Whale also includes lots of Catholic iconography here, the most sinister of which is a crucifix whose glow lingers during a fade to black. These and many other overt and subconscious touches kept me on edge during the whole movie, more so than John Mescall's harsh-angled cinematography or Charles Hall's twisted, imaginative sets.

I love Bride of Frankenstein. It's got heart and horror to spare, and represents a long-gone era in which the people behind big-studio films seemed to be in love with all the creative possibilities of the medium. Aside from one really annoying villager (Una O'Connor) who kept popping up as comic relief, this is a perfect film that should be seen and appreciated by everyone.

Sunday
Aug212011

Fright Night (2011)

Slay (I Missed You)

Now, this is how you remake a movie! For the last several years, Hollywood has gone out of its way to support the snide but seemingly true notion that it has run out of ideas. From prequels to requels to sequels, from re-imaginings to reboots, I've suffered through tons of glossy, uninspired updates to classic films--the best of which I can count on my middle finger.

The two big questions at the heart of these celluloid Xeroxes are A) Why are they necessary? and, B) Why remake good movies instead of improving upon bad ones?

Both can be answered, of course, with the words "brand recognition". In the cut-throat, fickle, and risk-averse world of mainstream film, a name that the target audience is already familiar with is always a safer bet than something original (one might site Avatar or the Pixar movies as arguments against this theory, but both James Cameron and The House that Toy Story Built are themselves brands: audiences know exactly what to expect before they reach the ticket booth. The newest flavor from the Coca-Cola Company is just a slightly tweaked formula for carbonated sugar-water, and film remakes are simply recycled products with better film stock and slick, new floating-heads posters.

This proven, pathetic fact is what makes director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Marti Noxon's new version of Fright Night such a mind-blowing surprise. With a series of deft touches, they preserve the spirit and story structure of the Tom Holland's 1985 vampire picture while offering up a contemporary version that is in many ways smarter and more engaging than the original. Often, I worry that the new generation of filmgoers will mistakenly consider a remake to be the definitive version of a particular film. But Fright Night stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its predecessor, and both have unique qualities that distinguish them as great horror movies.

The new film stars Anton Yelchin as Charley Brewster, a high-schooler whose summer of maturation has netted him sudden popularity and a hot girlfriend named Amy (Imogen Poots). One evening, he comes home to find his mother (Toni Collette) chatting up the hunky, new next-door neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell). Jerry is smitten with both girls and acknowledges Charley as a sort of masculinity-improvement project.

Meanwhile, Charley's former best friend, diehard geek Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), tries to warn him about a series of disappearances in the area; Ed believes that Jerry is a vampire, and that he may have killed one of their friends who'd gotten too close to his secret. Charley blows him off and accuses him of being jealous of his newfound social standing.

Soon, Ed turns up missing and Charley begins to suspect something's not right with the new guy on the block. Using a nifty little test that I won't spoil here, the teen learns the truth; more importantly, he gives himself away in the process and creates a charming, deadly enemy. If you're familiar with the original Fright Night, then you know that Charley seeks the help of a professional demon-slayer named Peter Vincent. In 1985, the character was a washed-up horror-movie host; today, Vincent is a middle-aged Las Vegas illusionist whose schtick involves vanquishing undead hordes with fireballs and wire-work. After much convincing, Vincent offers to help Charley defeat Jerry, which leads to a weird, bloody climax in the vampire's lair.

Though the film's destination isn't surprising, the journey feels completely new, thanks to Noxon's re-tooling of key elements and an expansion of the teen characters' relationships that was sorely missing in the original. Holland's movie felt very small; consequently, I never believed that Charley, Amy, and Ed were really in high school; they seemed like an insular trio of virginal, obsessed-nerd archetypes. By playing up the tension between Ed and Charley and Charley's new crowd, Noxon gives everyone's motivations a gravitas beyond the supernatural struggle between good and evil.

She also messes with Fright Night fans' expectations about who the characters are. As originally portrayed, Charley was a kind but sassy geek, and Ed his obnoxious sidekick. In the new film, Charley is kind of a dick who runs around with people that the Charley we know and love would never have associated with. And Amy comes off as a stuck-up Aeropostale model who wants her man to be less dweeby and more preppy. It's a bit much to take at first, but with these changes, Noxon turns the movie itself into an illustration of what her characters are going through: Ed sees his old, familiar pal morphing into a shallow creature; Charley sees Amy as the unattainable dream girl who can save him from his LARP-ing past; Amy sees Charley as the kind of nice guy that one can't find among the ranks of the super-popular. We, the audience, aren't sure of this new version of our old friend, mostly because we're too scared to admit he/it has grown up a bit.

All that is well and good, but what about the vampire stuff? It's pretty terrific. As with his small but memorable role in Horrible Bosses, Colin Farrell brings an unexpected twist on his gorgeous, L.A.-player persona in the choices he makes as Jerry Dandridge. Twenty-six years ago, Chris Sarandon (who, along with Lisa Loeb, who pops up in a cool little cameo) played Jerry as a cultured Yuppie who happened to have moved to the suburbs. His old-fashioned charms made the transformation into quietly menacing dark lord that much creepier. Farrell goes a completely different route, making Jerry into a beefed-up Vegas douchebag who, if he weren't draining strippers of their blood would certainly be slipping them roofies.

Gone is the subdued politeness; in its place is the pompous, beer-laugh arrogance of a guy who knows he's the coolest thing on the planet. He hides in plain sight, and I can't imagine the neighbors would be surprised to see him in a domestic-abuse story on the evening news. Farrell's effectiveness in the role is up for debate. I like the new take, but there's a phoniness to his slick persona that rubbed me the wrong way; I can't be sure it Farrell had trouble being cool while playing cool, or if he was playing Jerry Dandridge as a predatory chameleon still getting used to his new skin.

David Tennant is absolutely great as Peter Vincent 2.0. Rather than imitating Roddy McDowall, he creates a unique character from the archetype. This Vincent is an irredeemable, hard-core drunk who hides in his mansion-suite and buys mystical relics off eBay in his spare time. Everything about him is a magnified illusion--from his hair to his love for the occult, and his dismissive cruelty towards Charley hits harder here. My one major beef with the character is that we learn his parents were killed by a vampire, which explains both his supernatural empire and his reluctance to pursue its real-world implications; he's a coward, through and through. But the victim-parents angle goes one step too far (it practically hurdles off a cliff when we learn just who killed his parents; this throwaway line feels like a studio note compared to the rest of the film's solid writing).

Speaking of pushing boundaries, I saw Fright Night in 3D, and would like to, once again, express my disgust at this ticket-inflating trend. All 3D does in a movie like this is exaggerate the cheapness of the CG effects. The only half-way entertaining use of the technology came in the form of a stake launched at the screen, which was caught in mid-air and snapped in two. The other money-shots look like out-of-the-box After Effects plug-ins, from the generic blood splatters to the godawful vampire faces, which mix computer imagery with practical effects. I guess the idea was to re-create the look of the wide-mouthed cartoon-character vamps found in the original film; but I wished the makeup and effects departments had followed the writer and directors' leads and developed something new--at least something that isn't completely ridiculous and scare-free.

Oddly enough, the production design almost makes up for the effects problems. Richard Bridgland does some great, spare work here, toning down the grand, Goth spectacle of Jerry's house from the original in favor of a utilitarian prison/food-storage-locker in the remake. Some of the most intense moments find Charley trapped in a white corridor, trying to free a neighbor from one of several locked rooms where Jerry keeps his victims. Later, when he and Vincent face off against the head vampire in his basement, we're treated to these eerie, gravity-defying dirt walls and small caves that look like they actually sprouted from sub-division construction, but which definitely don't belong there (very much in line with the way the monsters in the Alien series enhance their surroundings using organic matter). It's rare that both the events and visuals of a horror movie's climax offer up this many continuous surprises.

While not a perfect film, Fright Night 2011 is stunning proof that not all remakes have to be lousy, that there is room for innovation and personal touches. This movie doesn't feel like a product so much as a brilliant, fan-created, alternate-universe homage. I know I spent much of this review drawing comparisons, but the best way to experience Gillespie's movie is to set aside everything you know about Holland's; my greatest challenge in watching it was turning down the volume on my Critic Brain, which has become so used to harping on remake discrepancies over the years that I couldn't trust Noxon's vision until twenty minutes into the show. I can't wait to see it again, to appreciate the odd choices that lead to cool payoffs; to paraphrase "Evil" Ed, this movie is so cool.

Saturday
Aug202011

Antitrust (2001)

Roesmary's Bitrate

This never happens: A few weeks ago, my friend Bryan lent me an out-of-print, high-tech thriller called Antitrust (this is the same guy who re-introduced me to Hackers and turned me on to the masterworks of Shane Van Dyke, so I've come to value his suggestions). He told me who was in it and touched on the plot, describing it as a "fun, forgettable movie". It's so forgettable that, until I looked at the DVD cover, I completely forgot that I'd seen this movie in a theatre on opening weekend.

Antitrust came out ten years ago, but there was a giant hole in my memory where Ryan Phillipe's pouty, uber-nerd adventures should have been. Aside from infrequent bursts of déjà vu, I didn't remember anything about the story or performances, and it's easy to understand why this fled my brain in the first place.

Peter Howitt's film opens well. A group of California college kids are on the verge of locking in venture capital for their modest, garage-based tech firm. They dream of developing the best open-source code possible and making the world a better place--which puts them at philosophical odds with Gary Winston (Tim Robbins), a Bill Gates-type who many in the cyber-hippie community believe built his vast, for-profit empire on top of stolen, rights-free code. The first twenty minutes are like a teen-heart-throb version of The Social Network: lots of code-speak, arguments about ideals and money, and a mysterious Internet billionaire who uses his charms and power to seduce an eager, naive genius. Things turn south, though, when people start turning up dead.

Despite looking like a lame, middle-aged mama's boy, Winston is a ruthless, calculating monster who employs hit men to take care of the competition. His company's tendrils reach out all over America, placing spy cameras in the garages and bedrooms of every emerging tech genius his agents discover. A duo of goons blows up the images of these kids' computer screens in order to read and copy the code they're developing.

It's kind of a cool idea, but the fact that this is supposed to be an approximation of Bill Gates renders the premise laughable. Maybe because Antitrust came out when world-wide technological integration was still in its infancy (okay, maybe it was a toddler in 2001), writer Howard Franklin felt a David and Goliath story wouldn't be interesting enough without hot chicks and murder. But Robbins plays Winston as a creep from the get-go: even when he's being nice, there's a bizarre, kiddie-toucher vibe that telegraphs his mid-picture turn as a rage-filled lunatic. This leaves no room for surprise, character development, or a reason to remember the film.

Speaking of predictability, I've got a tip for any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading this: it's generally a good idea to surround your protagonist with at least one reliable character--even if your movie is called Antitrust. Following the mysterious death of his best friend, Teddy (Yee Jee Tso), Milo begins to uncover the extent to which Winston has manipulated his life-path. Milo's co-workers, girlfriend, and even the Department of Justice agent looking to hire him as a mole for an antitrust investigation are all in on the conspiracy. As the movie wears on, the ongoing revelations that absolutely everyone in his life is a traitor--save for the three geeks he grew up with--becomes laughable, especially because Milo is the last person to figure any of this out.

Despite all that, Antitrust is worth watching, if only for its time-capsule quality. It's weird to think of a movie from early 2001 as a period piece, but there's a plucky innocence here that reminded me of a time when popcorn movies about computers didn't have to be about terrorism; all of Winston's unconscionable actions are meant to protect his prize innovation, which is essentially YouTube. Antitrust also reminded me of that brief, golden era when Rachel Leigh Cook was in just about everything.

If you're looking for a sub-par War Games wannabe whose relevance was diminished the moment Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod, then Antitrust is the movie for you. For everyone else, stick with the better version of this picture, the one directed by David Fincher that I still remember seeing last year.

Trivia: Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke served as Antitrust's production designer. I'm not sure if that's at all relevant, but I had a "you're kidding" moment while watching the opening credits.

Friday
Aug192011

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.