Time for another confession: I watched Arthur 2: On the Rocks (Yorkin 1988) years before I saw the original Arthur (Gordon 1981).
Of course, there is a good reason for that: Arthur 2 On the Rocks used to play fairly frequently as the afternoon film on weekends, along with I Come in Peace, aka Dark Angel (Baxley 1990) and the Nightmare On Elm Street sequels for reason. Thus, used to I watch it when there was nothing else on when I was a teenager. The film had a few laughs, but it was nothing great, and I certainly was not motivated to see the original film based on the sequel. More importantly, I did not hate it as so many other people did.
Watching the film now in light of my love for the original Arthur however, as well after years of maturing as a film fan, and the level of hatred directed towards Arthur 2: On the Rocks is now understandable to me. The film is a mess of bad ideas, shoddy screenwriting, and sheer desperation on the part of star and producer Dudley Moore, who clearly was trying recapture his past success after the critical and financial failures of the films he did immediately preceding Arthur 2: On the Rocks.
The film is, however, fascinatingly bad. It is the product of a rather talented group of filmmakers, with Bud Yorkin, the filmmaker behind the criminally underrated Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), directing and Andy Breckman, creator of the television series Monk on writing duties. Most of the original cast is back, including John Gielgud, whose character Hobson (SPOILER) died in the original film (More on that later). Over their respective careers, these two have produced or worked on a number of screen gems, but with Arthur 2: On the Rocks, the best that they can do is produce a few chuckles and insult the intelligence of the audience.
Set seven years after the events original film, Arthur 2: On the Rocks finds Arthur (Moore) and Linda (Liza Minnelli) happily married, with Arthur still drinking and doing nothing with his life. Linda wants to have a child, but when she discovers that she cannot biologically have one, she convinces Arthur to go along with adopting a baby. However, just as the pair are getting ready to adopt, the Bach family business merges with the empire of Burt Johnson (Stephen Elliot), whose daughter Arthur left at the alter at the end of the previous film. Still angry at Arthur, Johnson forces Arthur’s family to cut him off from the fortune until he agrees to divorce Linda and marry his daughter Susan (Cynthia Sykes), who still desperately wants Arthur. Refusing, Arthur and Linda are forced into a working class existence, which Arthur struggles to cope with as he finds himself trying to take responsibility for once in his life.
While any sequel to Arthur would have been unnecessary, the idea of Arthur giving up the booze to try and be a responsible father actually could have made for a half decent film, giving Arthur a real reason to confront the reality of his life, if we had no choice but to see him try and overcome his alcoholism. A less interesting, but still a reasonable basis for a sequel would have been to watch Arthur straighten his life out and become a functioning member of the working class after the loss of his fortune. Together, these ideas might have even complimented each other. So the question simply is this: why do none of these ideas work in the finished film?
The answer lays with the idiotic and highly artificial Johnson revenge storyline that dominates the film. The original Arthur was a villain-less piece, with Arthur caught in a tough situation that forces him to make one simple choice in his life. By contrast, this sequel gives Arthur a threat he must overcome, and in the process it undermines the fact that the real problem facing Arthur is how he chooses to live his life. When Arthur gets a job, and then is promptly fired, it is not because his drinking makes him incapable of holding a job, but because Burt Johnson buys the store and demands Arthur be fired. When Arthur and Linda cannot stay at her father’s place, it is because the "new owner" wants them out of the apartment. This transformation of the Johnsons into outright villains does a disservice to the character of Arthur by giving him an easy scapegoat for his problems. Moreover, it reduces the Johnsons to cartoons instead of real human beings in a real world.
Not that anything outside the Johnson plotline closely resembles the real either. While the adoption storyline has potential, the adoption process as presented in the film bares no resemblance to how adoptions actually work, with Kathy Bates adoption agency representative acting as an oblivious fairy godmother figure to Arthur and Linda. Bate's character ignores several problems she discovers over the course of the film relating to Arthur and Linda, problems that would make most adoption agencies take a good hard look at these pontential parents. These problems include, but are not limited to: Arthur’s alcoholism (she merely takes him at his word that he is trying to improve); the fact that Arthur and Linda have lost everything; and that the apartment Arthur and Linda have moved into is a microscopic dump (which, by the way, Bate's character shows up at mere MINUTES after Arthur and Linda agree to rent it). Even more baffling is that the adoption agent endless claims that love is one all one really seems to need to raise a child, which, as any reasonable parent will note, is a statement completely ignorant of reality. The whole subplot comes across as an underdeveloped idea, and should have been exercised from the script entirely, or made the center piece of the film.
The biggest misstep with the film however is the manner in which Arthur’s drinking problem is finally addressed. (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD). In the final third of the film, Arthur is actually visited by the ghost of Hobson (Gielgud), I kid you not, who acts as a Clarence-like figure to Arthur’s George Bailey, without the whole alternate timeline shtick. Here, Hobson tells Arthur he finally needs to get his act together and give up drinking, and Arthur does. Right there. No questions asked.
Just like that.
The many problems with the film I have already mentioned could be overlooked, but this no effort approach for addressing Arthur’s alcoholism, one of the key defining traits of the character, is not one of them. While having Arthur give up the bottle was a mistake in the 2011 remake of Arthur, that film at least made some attempt to show that Arthur giving up alcohol was not an easy task. Not much of an attempt mind you, but more of an attempt that “ghost tells Arthur to stop drinking, and he does.” Arthur’s battle with the bottle, while still not a good idea, at least would have provided a solid comedic and dramatic backbone for the film, and too see it tossed away frivolously here illustrates just how ill-conceived this whole venture is.
The shame of it all is that there are elements of the film I genuinely enjoy. While the film was clearly born out of Moore's need for a box office hit, he and Liza Minnelli are charming in the film, rising above the material they are working with. At points, the film does manage to get a few laughs, including a priceless scene in which Arthur is told to “just marry the bitch.” And during the all too brief time spent on Arthur looking for a job, the film manages to find a pulse that the rest of the film lacks. Fortunately or unfortunately, the filmmakers manage to sully even these good moments with an ending so schmaltzy that it makes the works of Frank Capra seem downright cynical.
Perhaps the final, lasting achievement of Arthur 2: On the Rocks is that it set the bar so low, there was nowhere for the 2011 remake to go but up. Sadly, for fans of the original film, this is likely not much of a consolation. Arthur 2: On the Rocks is now available on Blu-Ray in a double feature set with the original film, which means if you want the original Arthur, you are stuck with this sequel as well. It is best to think of Arthur 2: On the Rocks as an unwanted special feature, but if you are a die hard fan, chances are you will check it out anyway. For everyone else, stay away.