Fans of Russell Brand have known for at least a few years now that he’s pretty darn funny. Turns out, he can act, too. (♪ I know it’s crazy, but it’s true. ♫) And while he won’t win any kind of award season recognition for his performance in Arthur, he helps turn what could have been a flimsy knock-off into a fairly funny remake.That’s the good news for people who never saw (or have even heard of) Dudley Moore’s 1981 original.
For those who have– while this is essentially the same movie (identical plot, occasional identical dialogue, even identical character names), there are a few significant differences that make it seem like the filmmakers just wanted to spray the original with a bottle of Lysol, to make it a more appealing to today’s moviegoer.
The biggest difference is with Arthur himself. Brand’s Arthur is as immature and childish as Moore’s was drunk and buffoonish. The modern day version plays with children’s toys, enjoys candy, and giggles with glee when Hobson (Helen Mirren) dons a Darth Vader mask and starts talking like James Earl Jones. Moore’s, while still childish, seemed more of a grown up… not much, mind you, but enough that you didn’t think you were watching a 12-year-old.
Look no further than the opening scene. The original began with Arthur stone drunk and trolling for hookers before finally picking one up to take to The Plaza. In this one, Arthur dresses up like Batman and joyrides in the Batmobile with a Robin-attired Bitterman (Luis Guzmán). There’s not a hooker in sight.
From there, we learn that Arthur is obscenely rich, but that his parent (dad in original, mom here) wants him to settle down with Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), who’s pretty and loves Arthur in the original, but underhanded and manipulative here. If Arthur doesn’t agree to the marriage, he gets cut off.
Of course at that very moment, he meets Naomi (Greta Gerwig), a giver of under-the-table tours at Grand Central Station. She’s lower class, but she’s also pretty and fun. He falls for her immediately and then stands at the crossroads. Love or money?
The screenplay by Peter Baynham (whose only other feature credit is writing the largely-improvised Borat and Bruno) actually works for the most part, whether you’ve seen the original or not. There are some moments that are sillier than they need to be, but the script also has plenty of heart and some truly hilarious one-liners. First-time director Jason Winer (TV’s Modern Family) doesn’t really bring anything notable to the party, other than keeping everything flowing together well and letting Brand go nuts.
Mirren does a wonderful job as stuffy butler Hobson, and Gerwig is completely charming and lights up the screen every time she appears.
Brand is obviously the star of the show, though, and his transformation from man-child to honest and caring adult is surprisingly well done and (dare I say?) nuanced at times.
Sure, diehard fans of the original may cringe a little at what’s become of their beloved Arthur (He’s in AA? He’s applying for a minimum wage job?), but everyone else, including casual fans of the original, rest assured. Arthur won’t have you reaching for the aspirin in the morning.