The original 1981 Arthur is a hard act to follow. Starring cuddly Dudley Moore as lovable playboy Arthur Bach, the film won two Academy Awards (John Gielgud, supporting actor, and best song, Arthur’s Theme, The Best Thing You Can Do, co-written and sung by Christopher Cross), and made it onto several all-time funniest movie lists. Remaking a classic is always a risk, but this new production, with Russell Brand assuming the role of Arthur, actually improves on the original in many ways. It is 2011, after all, and drinking to excess is no longer taken so lightly, so we see Arthur attending AA meetings, making an attempt to stay sober. Rather than being just dropped into the movie, however, these scenes have real substance and flesh out the Arthur character in ways the first film failed to do. Arthur’s transformation doesn’t happen overnight and, in the end, becomes all the more believable.
The basic plot remains the same. Arthur’s profligate ways threaten the reputation and future of the family foundation, Bach Worldwide. After failing numerous times to bring her son under control, matriarch Vivienne Bach (veteran British actress Geraldine James, curiously left out of the voluminous materials passed out to the press), delivers an ultimatum: Arthur is to marry Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), the take-no-prisoners corporate executive employed by the foundation who will, hopefully, keep him in line. If he refuses, he’s cut off. With no job skills to speak of, Arthur has no choice but to accept.
Arthur’s nanny, Hobson, the ever-brilliant Helen Mirren, knows that Arthur needs to turn his life around, but that a forced marriage will not accomplish that task. Like Gielgud before her, Mirren’s Hobson serves as Arthur’s parent substitute and conscience. Knowing his drinking exacerbates his problems, she takes him to an AA meeting. The first attempt is a failure, but Mirren delivers a heartfelt speech that resonates with Arthur eventually and brings him back to face his demons.
Timing is everything and after agreeing to his mother’s demands, Arthur meets Naomi (Greta Gerwig), who gives non-sanctioned tours through Grand Central Terminal to help support herself and her father. Naomi is the free spirit that Arthur only pretends to be. Arthur needs alcohol and cash to fuel his pretended happiness. Naomi feels that the moon is following her, and knows that omen portends good things for her down the road. While amused by how Arthur spends his money (he has Grand Central closed down to have a private dinner with her under the hall’s starry ceiling), she is not seduced by his wealth. She has her dream—to write children’s books. After showing Arthur a first draft, a love story between the Statue of Liberty and the Chrysler Building, he encourages her to follow her passion.
At first glance, Brand seems an unlikely successor to Moore’s Arthur. While Moore’s diminutive stature gave him a boy-like appearance, Brand is tall, whippet thin, and hairy, more a man-boy. A comedian, he’s adept at delivering a punch line, but he also gives Arthur a vulnerability that belies his looks. When curled up listening to Hobson read him Frog and Toad, there’s a childlike tranquility to his face. There is a strong bond between the two and Brand and Mirren find that connection on screen. When he asks her if she had ever been in love, she confesses, yes, once with a man from Spain. She had her bags packed, ready to leave Arthur’s family to go to him. “What happened?” Arthur asks. “Your father died. You were only two. And I loved you.” That the exchange happens while Arthur is caring for Hobson during her final days adds to the poignancy of the moment. She didn’t desert him; he won’t desert her.
Nick Nolte, too long absent from films, plays Susan’s father, Burt, a bear of a man who shows no pain even after Arthur accidentally punctures him with a nail gun. Nolte’s raspy voice gives Burt a threatening edge, putting Arthur on notice that backing out of the wedding is not an option.
Jennifer Garner plays Susan, an entirely different spin than Jill Eikenberry in the earlier film. While Eikenberry’s Susan was motherly, wanting nothing more than to take care of Arthur, Garner’s Susan is using the marriage as a stepping stone to take over the Bach Foundation. Even though she comes from wealth, she lacks credentials (“no coat of arms,” she tells Arthur), causing other society denizens to snicker at her. With “Bach” attached to her name, she will have that status.
Garner sinks her teeth into the role, showing her physical side, whether galloping on a horse, with Arthur clinging behind her, or appearing at his door as a dominatrix, ready to whip him into shape, literally.
There are plenty of New York scenes to satisfy city fans. Grand Central has never looked more wondrous. (Emptying the cavernous hall of teeming crowds helps). Arthur and Susan have their engagement dinner at Le Cirque and there are many scenes in Central Park. Car aficionados will enjoy the classic cars from films past, including the Batmobile and the DeLorean of Back to the Future.
Jason Winer, one of the creative forces behind ABC-TV’s award-winning Modern Family, makes his feature directorial debut with Arthur. Seems he has learned a lot from portraying the travails of families on television. “My favorite kind of comedy is not only laugh-out-loud funny but has a lot of heart and even a note of poignancy,” he says. “I love stories about characters we can root for as they try to become better people.”