Russell Brand takes over the title role in this unnecessary remake of the better-remembered-than-re-watched 1981 film starring Dudley Moore and the Oscar-winning Sir John Gielgud. It’s harder to find a perpetually substance-abusing hedonist funny these days than it was back in the Reagan Administration era. There have just been too many boy-men comedies and too many episodes of “Celebrity Intervention” since then to give this idea the freshness it had 30 years ago. Compare the advertising taglines for the films. Circa 1981: Not everyone who drinks is a poet, some of us drink because we’re not. Circa 2011: No Work. All Play. Crisper, perhaps, but dumbed down and not too ambitious or intriguing.
Brand, who can do quite well when he essentially plays himself, his offhand delivery contrasting nicely with the outrageousness of the comments, is a comedian, not an actor, and he seems lost just when his character most needs to demonstrate the depth to persuade us that two fine women see something worth loving in him. When Brand shows up in the opening credits as not just star but co-producer, it becomes drearily obvious that this movie was the result of nothing more than a “let’s find a vehicle for Russell” meeting. There is no sense at any point that anyone connected with the film had any special inspiration about either remaking or updating the original. We hear a few notes from the original film’s Oscar- and Grammy-winning song (“When you get caught between the moon and New York Ciiiity….”), but just a few flickers of what made the Moore version so appealing.
As in the first film, Arthur is a fabulously wealthy man who tries to amuse himself by over-spending or over-indulging in alcohol and women or preferably both at once. His loyal nanny (Dame Helen Mirren replacing Gielgud as the butler) is the only one who is close to him and the only one who cares about him. His mother is a tycoon who would hold him in disdain if she thought he was worth the effort. The girl he slept with the night before tucked his watch into her purse. The cops get a bit annoyed when he floors it in his Batmobile. And somehow showering money and gifts on random strangers does not win him friends, either.
Arthur’s mother gives him an ultimatum. Either he marries the rapaciously ambitious Susan (Jennifer Garner, having a lot of fun but not quite managing to squelch her innate niceness) or he is cut off from the fortune and must find some other way to support himself. Even though he has just met a girl named Naomi who might make him happy (indie darling Greta Gerwig in her first big-budget leading role), he agrees. The dilemma gets amped up as Arthur becomes more attached to Naomi and when he meets Susan’s father, played by Nick Nolte in a tasteless role as a nouveau riche bully who casually plucks out the nails Arthur accidentally shot into him and forces Arthur to put his tongue in a buzz saw. And then Arthur, who has always been taken care of, has to care for someone else when his nanny becomes, as she would say, ill.
“I like earning something,” Naomi tells Arthur, “And I know you don’t know what that feels like. It is great.” I like movies that earn the respect and affection of their audience with diligence, sincerity, and imagination. The people behind this movie do not know what that feels like, and that doesn’t feel great.
Parents should know that much of the humor is based on alcohol abuse, promiscuous sex, and careless and immature behavior. The movie includes crude humor, some strong language, explicit sexual references and non-explicit situations, comic violence, and a sad death.
Family discussion: Why was it hard for Arthur to grow up? What changes did they make to update the 1981 original? What did Hobson and Naomi like about Arthur?
If you like this, try: the 1981 version with Dudley Moore