Review: Russell Brand and Greta Gerwig make the most of uneven ‘Arthur’ remake

The original “Arthur” was a modest little comedy that ended up with a major invite to the Oscars and a big pile of money.  It was a critical and commercial hit, and the dialogue of the movie entered the pop culture vernacular that year.  The theme song from the film by Christopher Cross was omnipresent on the radio, and between this film and “10” a few years earlier, Dudley Moore was having a full-blown movie star moment.  The film was the kind of hit that rarely happens these days, a slow-burn word-of-mouth case of a little movie that audiences just plain devoured.  That was part of its charm.

The new “Arthur” is a much more elaborate affair, and as conceived, it is a calculated attempt at using a beloved-but-old-enough-to-be-forgotten title to force a movie star moment with someone who has been tapped for said stardom.  In this case, Russell Brand is the guy who everyone has been trying to figure out since he made his studio debut with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and right now, he’s having about as clear a shot at it as he’s ever going to get.  He had a big weekend last week with his family comedy live-action/animation hybrid “Hop,” and now this week, he’s the lovable drunk who has to choose between a loveless marriage as a wealthy man or the girl of his dreams and a life of poverty.

And before we go any further, yes… he’s a drunk.  He drinks non-stop in the film.  He is as constantly sloshed as Dudley Moore was.  It’s been conspicuously absent from all of the advertising for the movie, but literally within the first five or ten shots of the film, we’ve seen bottles and flasks being slipped into a utility belt.  From the marketing materials, I thought the angle this time was less about him being a raging alcoholic and more the man-child thing.  It turns out to be both, which makes sense.  

The new version, credited to Peter Baynham with the story credit going to Steve Gordon who wrote and directed the original, plays Arthur as an overgrown baby, pampered by his nanny Hobson, played by Helen Mirren.  He drinks because he doesn’t have any reason not to drink.  He drinks because it gives him permission to be even more of an infant.  He takes nothing seriously, and he flaunts it in the face of his mogul mother Vivienne Bach (Geraldine James), who is worried about the future of the company that she controls.  

One of her most important executives is Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), who briefly dated Arthur at one point.  Susan is portrayed as a hungry, nakedly calculating woman with designs on the Bach empire.  She wants Arthur because she knows the value of a merger.  She is, by far, the villain of the piece in this new take on things, and Garner seems happy to play her without a single redeeming characteristic.  And her father, who is even more threatening in this new version than he was in the original, is played by Nick Nolte with his freak turned up to 11.  His first appearance in the film was the single biggest laugh for me.

Oddly, both Helen Mirren and Luis Guzman, who plays Bitterman, the chauffeur, feel like they’re leashed in the whole movie.  They never really engage, and with Mirren in particular, that’s a disappointment.  It sounded like a perfect fit, playing the gender switch with her in the Gielgud role, particularly opposite a walking libido like Russell Brand, but the chemistry never really pays off.  Guzman’s just plain underwritten, underused.  It’s not enough just to have him onscreen… he needed to be given more to do.  They try to milk the Arthur/Hobson relationship for the same sort of emotional wallop that the 1981 version had, but it feels artificial.

I’m unfamiliar with Jason Winer’s work.  I haven’t watched “Modern Family,” which seems to be his big credit so far, but I know a lot of people love that show.  I think the film’s problems are as fundamental as a lurching, uneven sense of tone.  The places where it comes alive are due in large part to Greta Gerwig, who plays Naomi, a gorgeous, charming girl who stumbles into Arthur’s life at the exact moment he’s got to buckle down and make the choice he doesn’t want to make.  She represents everything that his mother hates, and she’s one of those impossible movie girls, eccentric and sexy and innately saintly, and Gerwig is just plain appealing enough to make it work.  And when it’s just Arthur trying to woo Naomi, it’s sweet and silly and enjoyable.

Is that enough?  Is a sporadically charming riff on such a familiar property enough to give Russell Brand and Greta Gerwig the bumps that it feels like the industry wants for them?  They’ve both been tapped, but they haven’t really had an organic moment where something they were in went from hit to phenomenon.  And it feels like Hollywood wants to give them that moment.  But this sort of innocuous remake, amiable and ultimately sort of dull, probably isn’t how it’s going to happen.  Dudley Moore had a real moment with the original, and this is just a karaoke version.  Brand and Gerwig deserve something better than this, something more uniquely suited to their undeniable appeal.

“Arthur” opens everywhere this Friday.