by Jef Burnham
Available on Blu-ray Combo Pack, DVD, On Demand and for Download on July 15, 2011 from Warner Home Entertainment.
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Arthur is a film that has considerable trouble standing on its own. As if being a remake weren’t enough to satisfy investors that it had enough of a built-in audience, Arthur makes numerous, awkward references to other popular franchises, including Batman, Back to the Future, Star Wars, and Scooby Doo, as if to force its way into pop culture. And it’s a shame really, because, although I was personally appalled by the prospect of a remake of one of my absolute favorite films, this incarnation of Arthur is admittedly a sweet, somewhat charming, and occasionally humorous film, if a tad on the long side.
The gist of the piece is that millionaire Arthur Bach (Russell Brand) is an irresponsible alcoholic who proves himself to be an embarrassment to his mother and her company one too many times. Thus, he is given an ultimatum: marry a woman he doesn’t love or be cut off from his $950 million inheritance. He accepts, but soon thereafter falls for a poor tour guide from Queens and the obvious dilemma ensues.
The late Steve Gordon’s 1981 film of the same name featured incredible comic performances from Dudley Moore, Liza Minelli, and John Gielgud, who won a well-deserved Oscar for his portrayal of Arthur’s butler Hobson. The 2011 version too is blessed with terrific performances from Hellen Mirren and Greta Gerwig, but the performances are ultimately short of comic. And while Russell Brand may not deliver the film’s greatest performance (due in no small part to changes made from the original film at a script level), his chemistry with Gerwig and the complex relationship between Arthur and Mirren’s Hobson allow us to forgive the somewhat flat portrayal. Nick Nolte and Luis Guzmán also appear in supporting roles that desperately beg for laughs, but ultimately get none. Finally, Jennifer Garner’s Susan leaves much to be desired by simple virtue of the fact that her character has been altered from the original to be a power-hungry villainess rather than a woman who loves Arthur but is simply not loved in return. This alleviates the love triangle between Arthur, Naomi (Gerwig), and Susan of much of its complexity.
What prevents the film from achieving the comedic levels of its predecessor is primarily a shift in the approach to Arthur’s alcoholism. Whereas Dudley Moore’s Arthur was a hilarious, loveable drunk, Brand’s is, by design, an irritatingly immature git who drinks all day and remains drunk throughout almost the entirety of the film. This establishes the grounds for a responsible conclusion in which Arthur must seek help with his affliction before being able to pursue a relationship with Naomi. (The original, by contrast, concludes with Arthur as every bit the charming alcoholic he had been in the opening). Thus, Brand’s performance is necessarily static throughout.
And while this is all indeed incredibly responsible of the filmmakers given the widespread acceptance of alcoholism as a disease in the 30 years since the original Arthur, the change significantly undermines the film’s intended comedy. What’s worse is that the epilogue in which Arthur finally confronts his alcoholism unnaturally delays the conclusion, making the end of the film drag unnecessarily. As a matter of fact, the thirteen or so minutes that comprise this tacked-on final sequence make the film precisely thirteen minutes longer than the original, showing just how far out of their way the filmmakers had to go to responsibly address Arthur’s addiction.
Ultimately, based on the strength of the relationships between Arthur and Hobson and Naomi, which are the film’s saving grace, the film would have worked far better as a romantic drama— as incongruous as this would have been with the source material.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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