Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Arthur (2011)

Director: Jason Winer
Starring: Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Garner, Luis Guzman, Nick Nolte
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

When I first heard they were remaking the 1981 Dudley Moore comedy Arthur, my chief concern was  getting a cover of Christopher Cross' so cheesy it's awesome Oscar winning title song "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" Thankfully, we get it, albeit too briefly over the closing credits (performed by Fitz and The Tantrums). That I considered that a priority should give you an idea how little this remake offends me. Arthur is, at least for its time, a comedy classic and easily the great Dudley Moore's most memorable role but it it's far from a masterpiece and I can't say I reacted with any more than an eye roll at news of a rehash or even that Russell Brand would be starring. More concerning to me was simply that it's a comedy with dramatic undertones and most of those tend to fall flat. Surprisingly, this isn't terrible and of all the criticisms that can be leveled against it, two I refuse to get on board with are any targeted at Brand or co-star Greta Gerwig, both of whom give charming performances that deserved a better film. There are occasions where this is almost that film, hitting the creative bull's eye and giving you a sense what could have been, but it's ultimately sunken by pointless predictability.

Arthur Bach (Brand) is a womanizing party animal stuck in arrested development with an alcohol problem (a detail downplayed somewhat from the original) and a nanny named Mrs. Hobson (Helen Mirren) as his caretaker.  Hitting the town in an '89 Batmobile with his chauffeur Bitterman (Luiz Guzman) in Batman and Robin costumes, Arthur crashes his own party, a dinner thrown by his wealthy mother announcing him as the new chairman of her multi-million dollar corporation, a position he's blackmailed into taking for fear of losing out on his hefty inheritance. It's definitely not a stretch anyone would need to be blackmailed into marrying his mother's assistant, snobby rich debutante Susan Johnson, who plans to take control of the company herself. But that plan's complicated not only by his disdain for Susan but the fact he's falling hard for free-spirited illegal New York City tour guide Naomi Harris (Gerwig) and now risks being with her at the cost of potentially losing all his fortune.

In some strange way, Russell Brand seems like the perfect fit for the title role and the idea to cast him was a good one. Having previously excelled at playing immature screw-up battling his inner demons in Get Him To The Greek, he's proven he can be silly one minute but also handle a dramatic load the next. This part isn't as tailor made for him as rocker Aldous Snow was (Arthur's almost too nice and harmless), but the tone is better controlled here than in that film, which could never make up it's mind up as to whether it was a comedy or drama. This is clearly a very light comedy with soft dramatic undercurrents and everyone involved at least seems to know that, which is a plus. Helen Mirren does a nice job filling the shoes of John Gieglund as Hobson in the original, while still adding enough that the change in gender makes sense, giving Arthur a mother figure. She starts out as a strict, humorless authoritarian but undergoes a well-executed (if predictable) character arc that results in Arthur having to take care of her for a change. It also gives Mirren the chance to talk through a Darth Vader helmet, a moment I'm sure she's dreamed of since winning her Oscar.

Though you'd never know it from the film's advertising, the female lead is actually Greta Gerwig, not Jennifer Garner. In a misleading, money-grubbing stunt that didn't work, the studio basically refused to acknowledge Gerwig and promoted Garner as the star.  However much of a fan base they falsely assumed Garner had, much of it will probably be eroded once they see her annoying, nails-on-a-chalkboard performance as Susan Johnson. Granted her character is unwisely written as over-the-top she makes a bad problem worse with her hysteria and theatrics, hammering home just how ineffective the central storyline is in clashing with the more grounded aspects of the script. Eventually, the ridiculous, almost embarrassingly predictable blackmail plot in which the entire movie revolves around overshadows everything else, even lessening the impact of the movie's small successes. And that's too bad since the scenes Brand shares with Gerwig (specifically a memorable sequence in an empty Grand Central Station) contains an appeal the rest of the film lacks. Following her underrated, Oscar worthy supporting turn in 2009's Greenberg, this is Gerwig's first foray into big mainstream studio fare and it's of little surprise she's good in a low-key way in the type of quirky dream girl who rescues the guy part we're so used to seeing played by Zooey Deschanel. Even though you sense they're only together because the script dictates it, the two actors make the most of what they're given and come off as an odd but surprisingly effective on-screen couple.

Arthur marks the feature debut of Jason Winer, a director known for his television work on ABC's Modern Family and it does kind of feel like a TV movie or extended episode of a sitcom in the sense that there's really nothing that feels cinematic about it. What he does excel at is taking advantage of the New York City setting as it does feel like a movie that takes place there, whether it was actually shot on location or not. While the movie doesn't work, it comes a lot closer than I expected and can easily imagine that with a better script and a more interesting choice of director an Arthur remake starring Brand and Gerwig could have really worked under the right creative guidance. But the best news for Brand is that this is his second noble near-miss in a row, and he's proven he at least has the acting talent to potentially carry a great film if necessary. It just hasn't come his way yet. In an era of pointless remakes, Arthur is at least pointless for reasons other than just being a remake, hinting that it wouldn't have hurt to change more and take a few risks. Maybe in a couple of years when they try to remake this remake they'll get another shot.

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