Director Jason Winer has cut his teeth helming episodes of such smart, acerbic sitcoms as "Modern Family" and the prematurely cancelled "Kath and Kim," but one would never know it from his feature film debut "Arthur," a safe, overwhelmingly bland remake of the 1981 Dudley Moore starrer. Set up at the onset as a raucous comedy in the mold British star Russell Brand (2010's "Get Him to the Greek
") is best known for, the picture soon turns into a warm-hearted love story before melodrama seeps into the edges of the frame. Even when it tries to be, it's almost never funnythe number of times it earns a laugh can be counted on one hand missing a few fingersand eventually loses interest in even attempting such a feat. In a way, this is okay since it is the core romance that works best, but what goes on between these sweet scenes lacks interest, plausibility, and comes off as more than a little strained.
Arthur (Russell Brand) may be well into his thirties, but as the heir to a billion-dollar fortune who has never known the meaning of responsibility, he is hopelessly rooted in the mindset of a rebellious fratboy who drinks all day and parties every night. Cared for since childhood by steadfast nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren), Arthur thinks nothing of regularly getting arrested for DUIsin the opening scene, he takes his batmobile out for a joyride on the streets of New York City and promptly crashes it into an iron landmark statueand, with endless money at his disposal, there are simply no major repercussions for his behavior. Then a wake-up call arrives. His haughty mother, Vivienne (Geraldine James), owner of the Bach Worldwide corporation, tires of her son's shaming ways and gives him an ultimatum: either marry well-respected, superficial philanthropist Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner) or be cut off from his inheritance. Arthur can't hardly stand Susanthey once had a fling a while backbut she is only so happy to wed him if it means getting her name on the company's stocks. He goes along with this loveless charade, but is faced with a difficult decision when he meets and becomes genuinely smitten by vivacious tour guide and aspiring children's author Naomi Quinn (Greta Gerwig). Naomi is a bit more even-keeled and certainly more down-to-earth than Arthur, but their connection and similar sensibilities are undeniable. If Arthur drops Susan to be with Naomi, however, he will be rendered penniless without any trade or skills to back him up. Is it even possible for Arthur to finally grow up?
Maybe because alcoholism and flagrant spending aren't as adorable as they were thirty years ago, this modern-day version of "Arthur" includes lectures about the troubled economy and insists on sending our hapless hero to AA meetings. Director Jason Winer doesn't dare risk offending any of the touchier audience members, you see, so the film resigns itself from taking chances. Arthur might be threatened with a middle-class existence, but the world he lives in doesn't really appear to be that threatening or dangerous a place. He's surrounded by cartoon characters and archetypes, from his bitchy mother, who cares more about her reputation than her son; to the domineering, power-hungry Susan; to Susan's gruff father (Nick Nolte), who tries to cut off Arthur's nose with an electric saw in one scene. Hobson is dutiful, yet quietly long-suffering, putting up with Arthur's antics for no reason other than because it's all she has grown to know. When she falls ill, it's one of those movie sicknesses that doesn't have a name but may prove fatal sooner rather than later. As for Arthur himself, he straddles the line between good-natured, uncouth, and frankly clueless. His attempt at getting a job at Dylan's Candy Bar, which has him swigging from his flask while manning the cash register, doesn't exactly give one much reassurance that he will ever be able to make an honest living.
Greta Gerwig (2011's "No Strings Attached
"), bless her, floats effortlessly into the film to almost single-handedly save the day as love interest Naomi (the equivalent of the Liza Minelli role). You'd never know it from the promotional ads that almost wholly hide her from view, but Gerwig is the closest thing to the movie's second lead. She is so infectious and adorable while remaining nothing less than natural that she quickly becomes the anchor of levity within the narrative. Arthur's initial meet-cute with Naomi at Grand Central Terminal is forced, but the two actors have enough charisma that it doesn't matter. It is also nice to see a character like Naomi written with such care; when she learns that Arthur hasn't been truthful to her and is engaged to Susan, she doesn't blow up at him, but really talks to him and expresses the hurt and betrayal she feels over what he's done. Later, when Arthur tries to make it up to her with a sneaky action that is all the more misguided, taking advantage of Naomi's emotions and self-worth, it verges on being nearly inexcusable. Eventually, Arthur does right his wrongs enough to want them to get together once and for all, even if there's no telling how quickly he might screw it up again. Bottom line: Greta Gerwig is irresistible.
Russell Brand is an ideal choice to walk in the late Dudley Moore's shoesthey are both saucy, mischievous-eyed Britsbut the script by Peter Baynham (2006's "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
") doesn't give him a chance to run with his, pardon the pun, brand of humor. The attempts at laughs are lame and well within the PG-13 limitations, while, oddly enough, his ploys for emotion never feel overdone even when the dramatic material itself is. As a performer, Brand is still a little too self-involved to give and takehe often talks at his co-stars rather than with thembut there continues to be a hint of growth that raises him above one-note status. As Hobson, Helen Mirren (2010's "Love Ranch
") is reliable and dignified, if unchallenged. What Jennifer Garner (2010's "Valentine's Day
") could have possibly seen in the role of Susan is another matter. There is a moment during the climax that could have gifted Susan with a tinge of humanityArthur tells her she deserves better than their arranged marriagebut it is thrown away seconds afterwards. Garner, like Susan, deserves better than this borderline-humiliating part. Someone of her caliber should never be relegated to that of a thankless shrew.
Who is the audience for "Arthur?" Baby boomers who were fans of the original won't be having any of it. It's too tame and never funny enough to please those in search of a raunchy, rollicking high time. Romantics might be taken with the love story between Arthur and Naomi, but they will have to endure a lot of extraneous foolishness in between. Finally, for those wanting a drama, it's syrupy but rarely affecting. Even the ending is botched, the decision not to use Christopher Cross' Oscar-winning "Arthur's Theme (The Best That You Can Do)" in the last scene, which would have at the very least made for a singularly magical, swoon-worthy moment, a distinct missed opportunity. This "Arthur," then, takes its finite place as exactly what it is: a pale, uninspired, unnecessary redux.