Russell Brand’s remake of ARTHUR – does it stand up to the original classic?

Published April 11, 2011

In September of 2009, while writing an article expressing my displeasure at the shoddy, pan-and-scan DVD of Dudley Moore’s Arthur (other than Blu-Ray, still the only one available), and trying to get an upgrade for what is arguably one of the funniest movies ever made, I noted that a remake had been rumored, starring Russell Brand.  I was appalled at this news at the time, and said something like, “Moore, Gielgud and [writer/director] Gordon are rolling over in their graves at this news.”

After seeing the movie, I may need to amend that statement.

I also stated in that previous article that …

If one takes into account the “laugh quotient” while considering the funniest movie of all time, certainly one of the top contenders would have to be 1981’s Arthur.  Bravo places it at number 10 on their list of the 100 Funniest Movies, AFI has it at a criminally-low 53.  This Dudley Moore vehicle has more genuine laughs-per-minute than most modern comedies put together.

I stand by that – Arthur (1981) is a text book example of how to write a comedy.  Dudley Moore himself, after reading the script, said that most comedies have about one laugh every ten pages, but that Steve Gordon’s Arthur script was exactly the opposite: ten laughs per page.  Dudley got the sweetness, innocence, and childlike nature of Arthur, which made him utterly lovable despite his incessant drinking.

My main two concerns going into the remake were:

1) How do you make a movie about a drunken billionaire playboy searching for love and still make the guy likeable … especially when he is not Cuddly Dudley?  Could Russell Brand give Arthur the same kind of boyish innocence and sense of fun even while being constantly besotted?

2) The original Arthur script was damn near perfect – how do you update it without screwing it up?

Though critics have generally lambasted this new version of Arthur (it currently has a pathetic 25% approval rating over at Rotten Tomatoes), based on an interesting trailer, I found myself oddly looking forward to seeing it, and wanting very badly for it to be good.

So is it?  Surprisingly shockingly, yes.  It is.

If a remake had to be made, Russell Brand is the only one to fill Arthur Bach’s expensive shoes.  Perhaps the ribald British comic is an acquired taste (hence the critical roasting), but I find him charming, charismatic, and very funny.  Russell is obviously a fan of Dudley Moore and the original film, as his drunken speech patterns here are greatly based on Moore’s, which helps this movie a lot.  (Even Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow was a cross between Keith Richards and Dudley Moore’s Arthur.)  Russell pretty much nails it here, and this good-but-flawed remake rides a looooong way on his charm.  (I would like to think that those who don’t like Brand would be converted by this performance … but given some of the curiously hateful reviews, this is probably not the case.)

As for the script by Peter Baynham, it keeps the skeleton of the original story, without copying it line for line.  Which actually works in its favor as much of the 1981 version’s dialogue was based around the diminutive stature of Dudley Moore:

Uncle Peter: Grow up, Arthur.  You’ll make a fine adult.
Arthur: That’s easy for you to say, you don’t have 50 pairs of short pants hanging in your closet!

Oddly enough, what lines do make it from the original are generally more serious in nature.

Yes, Russell Brand is quite good as Arthur – this is unquestionably his best role to date – but he has fine support here, too.

Helen Mirren shines as Hobsen, Arthur’s nanny.  While changing the sex of Hobsen from male to female seemed a strange choice (John Gielgud won an Oscar for his fantastically droll and sarcastic performance in the original), this switcheroo works in the remake’s favor.  It somehow helps Arthur be more sympathetic.

Greta Gerwig (Greenberg) at first seems a strange choice to play the Liza Minelli role (the character’s name has changed from Linda to Naomi), but as the lawbreaking, poor girl from Queens who steals Arthur’s heart, she is oddly likable.  Greta gives Naomi a sardonic wit which is utterly endearing, and usually punctuated by a goofy-but-sexy grin.

Jennifer Garner as Susan Johnson, the girl Arthur’s family wants him to marry or he will be cut off from nearly a billion dollars, has much more to do here than the original’s Jill Eikenberry.  Instead of merely being a milquetoast, Garner’s Susan is a manipulative, power hungry shrew.  The change works.

Nick Nolte is a perfect fit as Susan’s father, Burt Johnson, who is just plain psychotic.

This movie, not surprisingly, tries to deal a bit more responsibly with Arthur’s drinking.  While the original kind of downplayed the seriousness of alcoholism, it could be argued that neither incarnation of this character is officially alcoholic.  Or, if he is, at least he is an unfailing happy drunk.

First time director Jason Winer does a good job of balancing the humor and pathos here – which couldn’t have been easy given the subject matter.

No, Arthur 2011 is not as funny as the original – how could it be?  But it rides a long way on a tried and true story, and the mischievous charm of Russell Brand.  It also makes great use of an obviously bigger budget, as when Arthur rents out Grand Central Station for an hour so he can woo Naomi with dinner for two.  A few of the jokes here fall flat, but a surprising number hit the mark – they seem tailor-made for Brand, which stands this film on its own feet.

I was pleasantly surprised by the new Arthur, and look forward to the day when it can sit comfortably next to the original on my DVD shelf.

That’s coming quite a ways from my remarks about Moore, Gielgud, and Gordon rolling over in their graves at news of this remake.  Actually, this film has such obvious affection for the original (including using the Oscar-winning Arthur’s Theme), that I think they might actually even like it.  Go figure.

Movie Grade: ARTHUR 2011 – B
Movie Grade: ARTHUR 1981 – A