The best that can be said of director Jason Winer’s 2011 remake of Arthur is that it’s harmless. And it is harmless—in the same way, for example, that necrophilia is harmless. Yes, it’s distasteful, it’s disgusting, and it’s extremely unpleasant to watch. You can’t believe anyone would actually enjoy such a thing, and you can’t help but feel there ought to be a law against it. But if you look at it objectively, you realize that it’s kind of a victimless crime. I wouldn’t particularly want to watch someone nuzzle up to my grandmother’s corpse, but it wouldn’t really do my grandmother any harm, and it shouldn’t sully my fond memories of her. Mostly, I’d feel sort of embarrassed for the necrophile.
By the same token, Winer’s Arthur—the latest public act of cinematic corpse-raping—won’t sully my fond memories of Steve Gordon’s 1981 original, which will still be making audiences laugh when this pointless remake is long and deservedly forgotten. Featuring Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli, Jill Eikenberry, and a scene-stealing, Oscar-winning performance by Sir John Gielgud, the original Arthur remains one of the great comedies of its era. Nearly every line of dialogue is quotable, and yet the comedy is organic: Gordon, working from his own near-perfect script, never forces the laugh, and the characters remain real and surprisingly serious amid the rapid-fire humor.
One of the things that elevated the original above farce is that, underneath his drunkenness, Dudley Moore’s Arthur is a sad, serious man, and one possessed of a painful self-awareness. “This is who I am,” he tells would-be reformer Eikenberry. “Everyone who drinks is not a poet.” In fact, re-watching the original recently, I was surprised to remember how much of the movie Arthur spends sober, and seriously depressed. His memorable binges are all situational, and are responses to both his awareness of his own inadequacies and to his terror of the rather sinister figures surrounding him (including his loveless father, his treacherous grandmother, his passive-aggressive fiancé, and his thuggish potential father-in-law). The best comedies are all about non-conformity, and Gordon’s film has a lot in common with another great American comedy, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude. Arthur, like Harold, is flamboyantly self-destructive in part because he is beset from all sides by frightening agents of conformity. If that’s what growing up means, both films seem to ask, who needs it?
None of this is to be found in Winer’s clumsy remake, though the broad outline of the story is the same. Arthur Bach (Russell Brand) is still a drunken playboy, baby-sat by Hobson (now Helen Mirren’s dignified nanny, taking the place of Gielgud’s dignified butler). Arthur’s scary old-money family is forcing him to marry a new-money socialite (Jennifer Garner, being louder than Eikenberry, but nowhere near as scary). But just when he’s accepted this mephistophelean bargain, Arthur stumbles upon true love with a simple working class girl (Greta Gerwig’s tour-guide/aspiring-writer, taking over for Minnelli’s waitress/aspiring-actress).
Along the way there is a first-date, an engagement, an engagement party, a sickness, a death, and a wedding. All the major characters and plot elements from the original are here, but all have been changed (seemingly just for the sake of change), and none have been improved. (To provide just one example among many: the first date from the original—a rather sweet and incongruously humble trip to the video arcade —has now become a massive set-piece in an empty Grand Central Station, complete with acrobats.) It’s as though Gordon’s story had been told to, and repeated back by, a hyperactive and attention-deficient third grader.
That’s actually a pretty good description of the protagonist as well. Unlike Moore’s, Russell Brand’s Arthur is not remotely self-aware, and seems genuinely to not have a care in the world. He’s not tortured; he’s authentically shallow and childish, racing around town in his Batmobile and sleeping on his magnetic bed. It’s a serious problem with this movie: I found it quite reasonable that Arthur’s relatives expected him to grow up, and I found it implausible that that either Mirren or Gerwig see anything in him worth saving.
Worst of all, he’s just not funny. In the original movie, Moore’s humor came from being quicker than everyone else; drunk or sober, his mind was always working hard to find humor in even the darkest circumstances. (When the prostitute Arthur has picked up explains that she was six when her mother died, and twelve when her father raped her, Arthur observes, “So, you had six relatively good years?”)
Brand’s humor, on the other hand, comes from being slower than everyone else, from playing the little-boy-lost. In fact, it’s almost impossible to tell when Brand is playing drunk, sober, sad, or happy: it all comes out as the same muggingly cute, slightly spacy performance. His Arthur is less “witty alcoholic” and more “vaguely fey idiot man-child.” It’s a cartoonish, slapstick performance that relies on props, pratfalls, and costumes over wit.
The sad thing is, a faithful remake of Gordon’s original script with this cast might have worked. (It would have been as utterly pointless as Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, but it might have worked.) Brand can be funny, though he’s yet to prove it in a starring role; I can see how—with a decent script, like the original—this could have been the right vehicle for him. Mirren is Mirren: except for her choice of movies, she can do no wrong, and she remains irreproachable here (even if her Hobson lacks Gielgud’s dry wit and gravitas). Gerwig is perfectly fine; Garner is absurdly and distastefully over the top, but gamely playing the ugly role she signed on for.
But this remake of Arthur kept everything that didn’t matter from the original, and threw out everything that did— including the poignancy, the intelligence, the rebellion, and the laughs. This is Arthur watered down to a tepid, flavorless swill.