Coming away from the 2011 remake of the 1981 comedy classic Arthur, it has become clear to me that in Russell Brand, the filmmakers had the right star in which to accomplish this remake. The problem is that Arthur 2011 has been made at absolutely the wrong cultural moment.
The original Arthur from Steve Gordon is the story of wealthy drunk Arthur Bach who has to make a choice between maintaining his wealth by marrying a woman he does not love, or ending up in poverty by being with the woman he does love. While the overall narrative draws upon the long tradition of romantic fantasy, the strength of the film is the way in which the romantic desires of the characters are pitted against the harsh realities of their situations: Arthur (Dudley Moore) is an alcoholic pretty much lacking anything in the way of agency in his life; Linda (Liza Minnelli) is sweet and loving, but also rather naïve; Hobson (John Gielgud) is a man capable of love but also is far too entrenched in a sense of how class relations are supposed to work. The comedy, romance and drama all stem from the tension between the reality of the characters and the fantasy they desire. In turn, the audience is caught up in their own awareness of the reality of the situation and their own desire to see a fantasy play out.
In 2011 however, at least within the pandering Hollywood system, allowing the audience to merely observe the given characters of a film and make up their own mind about them is a rarity, particularly in a culture where parent groups want every film that features a cigarette to get an R rating, and every drunk be a villain. All characters must be clearly defined and morally judged, and the only way an alcoholic is allowed to be likeable is if he is gives up the bottle by the end of the film. As such, the only way Arthur (Winer 2011) is allowed to have its title character be an alcoholic for the bulk of the film is by fully embracing fantasy and do away with any sense of reality, thus safely marking a likable alcoholic as being as much a fantasy as the rest of the film.
The film boldly announces its complete shift away from reality in its opening scenes, as we witness Arthur (Russell Brand) getting decked out in a real Batman costume from 1995’s Batman Forever, loading the utility belt up with alcohol, and ending up in a police chase involving a fully functioning Batmobile. It is a fairly funny sequence, one of many in fact, but it only goes to show how much the filmmakers missed the point of the original film, or more likely how much fear over offending the potential audience guided the filmmaking process.
The flaws of the characters that were so central to the original have been greatly toned down or removed in this version of the story: Naomi (Greta Gerwig in the role equivalent to that of Linda in the original), is an idealized woman and overt role model; Hobson, played by Helen Mirren here, is less of a class snob and takes a more active role in defending Arthur as his fairy godmother with attitude; Susan, the sweet. Innocent, and minor character who just so happens to be the woman Arthur is being forced to marry in the original has been transformed into a vicious villainess played by Jennifer Garner. None of the performances given by the actors here are bad, and Helen Mirren manages to get some of the best laughs in the film with her take on Hobson. The problem is that rather than being given fully fleshed out characters, they have been given simplistic roles in a standard narrative.
The one actor to get something to play with real substance is Brand in the title role, and while the character arc Arthur undergoes is flawed, Brand’s actual performance does Dudley Moore justice while not being an imitation of Moore’s work. Brand manages to project the same level of sweet innocence that Moore did, but brings a higher level of confidence to the character that would have been out of place with Moore’s portrayal. Again, the writing never really gives Brand’s Arthur a moment to really risk alienating the audience quite Moore’s version, such as the infamous reaction to the tragic history of the prostitute he picks up at the start of the film, but there is no real reason to doubt that Brand could have pulled it off.
Of course, the lack of such a moment pretty much sums up the problems with this Arthur: it completely avoids taking risks like the original did, and that is a terrible shame. Brand is the right actor to take on this role, and he has everything it takes to be a leading man in a comedy, and potentially even drama. However, he needs the right material and direction to be able to really make that leap, and he is given neither in Arthur, unlike Dudley Moore who was at a similar turning point in his career when he stared in the original film. With any luck, Brand will not have to wait too long for that film to come.
On the plus side, Brand can at least rest well in the knowledge that his Arthur is a film better than Arthur 2: On the Rocks! (Yorkin 1988). As for the you the reader, make of that what you will.