A drunken playboy (Russell Brand) stands to lose a wealthy inheritance when he falls for a woman (Greta Gerwig) his family doesn't like.
Central to the myriad of problems that arise from the reimagining of the late Steve Gordon's 1981 Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser is the casting of Russell Brand as Arthur Bach, the drunken playboy made famous by fellow British import Dudley Moore.
Gordon's original script was a hot property and attracted the likes of George Segal, John Travolta, Bud Cort and John Belushi before the diminutive comedian hit big with Blake Edwards' 10 (1979) and was offered the part. Moore's casting proved a godsend – he was Oscar-nominated for the role that would come to represent his crowning Hollywood moment – but it was Gordon's words that shone through. (Full disclosure – the film is one of my favourite American comedies.)
Peter Baynham's script for this remake (for which Gordon receives a 'Story by...' credit) seems to be the least important thing about Jason Winer's film. Arthur has been resurrected for no other reason than to provide Russell Brand with a star-vehicle, one specifically-designed to soften his acerbic, coarse public persona and launch his movie career in the US. It’s a cynical, profit-motivated exploitation of a warmly-regarded character; everything about the film – most ironically, Brand's thoroughly unlikable lead performance – feels calculated.
The story remains largely the same as the 1981 film. Bach is a hedonistic lush, protected by his loyal servant Hobson, whose life changes when he is forced to marry shrewish heiress Susan Johnson by his wealthy family for no other reason than to further their fortunes. He baulks when he falls for a spirited New York girl; the film then follows his struggles to reconcile a wealthy but shallow life against one full of love but without the trappings.
The devil, however, emerges in the details. Jill Eikenberry's Susan was a spoilt brat but one who still believed romance would somehow blossom in spite of the 'forced' union with Arthur; Jennifer Garner's Susan is a ball-breaking brute, as evil as the world of high finance in which she thrives. Liza Minelli's gorgeous Linda, the shoplifter that Moore's Arthur fell for, was a strong, funny, utterly adorable foil; Greta Gerwig's Naomi is a giddy sap who needs Brand's Arthur to make her dreams come true.
And Hobson, personified by Sir John Gielgud 30 years ago in his Oscar-winning role, has morphed into the hard-edged Helen Mirren, who manipulates Arthur's life at the behest of her employer, Arthur's mother Vivienne (Geraldine James). The warmth of Moore's and Gielgud's performances was the heart that beat so strongly at the core of Gordon's film; no such chemistry exists between Mirren and Brand. Strongly-etched support characters from the original that provided some major incidental laughs (particularly Barney Martin as Linda's father and Stephen Elliott as Susan's dad) are all but cast aside in the remake.
Dudley Moore's Arthur Bach was an alcoholic, but he was both erudite and childlike, disdainful of authority but still respectful; he created his own slurred corner of the world and stayed within it, never really hurting anybody. Russell Brand's Arthur Bach is the sort of drunk you leave your own party to avoid; he is a creep when sober and a social brute when liquored up. Brand made his name as a Gen-Y shock comic, and it’s that persona that keeps poking through; scenes between the delicate Gerwig (whose sublime performance in Noah Baumbach's Greenberg suggests a great deal more than this role must have ever offered) and Brand's forced, teeth-grinding version of sentiment are tangibly awkward.
Taken on its own terms, Arthur 2011 is just another bad American comedy; a misguided vehicle to fully launch what are increasingly looking to be the rather one-note talents of the latest headline-making comic from across the pond. But the film flaunts its heritage, slipping into the mix direct quotes from Gordon's script and not-so-subtle references to his film. (Mirren and Brand do Gielgud impersonations to each other, for no discernible reason.) By doing so, it demands comparison; in doing so, all involved are put to shame.