To borrow from "A Hard Day's Night," Russell Brand is a mod, a rocker and a mocker.
He's got an edgy version of elfin charm — if you can call a 6-foot-1 man elfin. Lately he's had a mocker's version of a Midas touch. He gave voice to the Easter Bunny's teenage heir in "Hop" — and the film ruled the box-office last weekend.
The Russell Brand brand should get another boost Friday when he opens in his first star vehicle, "Arthur." Credit goes to Jason Winer, his Pikesville-bred director. Winer, 38, a graduate of Friends School, has the savvy and the smarts to keep the action flowing on Brand's witty stream of consciousness.
Winer was the executive producer and lead director of the TV farce "Modern Family" in its Emmy-winning first season. He is making his own debut — as a feature-film director — with this remake of the mischievous 1981 comedy that was a personal triumph for Dudley Moore.
Winer knew that his movie had to suit Brand as snugly as Steve Gordon's original did Moore. He had to retailor the lead role — an affable, ridiculously wealthy drunk — and alter the style and approach of the entire comedy.
As Winer said over the phone from Los Angeles last week, TV and movie comedy have changed since he first saw "Arthur" on HBO in the 1980s. Moore's Arthur told jokes that had 'ba-dump-bump' punch lines. Not all of them were hilarious — "Fish must get awfully tired of seafood," he quipped at one point.
"The truth is," Winer said, "Those jokes didn't make you laugh out loud. What made you laugh out loud was the way Moore sold them, with his own laughter. You can't sustain these bits in a contemporary comedy. The audience expects to discover jokes in a different way."
Winer and Brand set out to root the movie's humor strictly — but spontaneously — in Arthur's boy-in-a-deluxe-bubble character. They wanted audiences to laugh at his perceptive, unpredictable world-view, which is fresh in every sense of the word.
"I give you a tiny example," Winer said. "When the door opens to his mother's office, it's an automated door. As it opens, it hisses, and he just tosses off the comment, 'Hello, the future's now.' It was something Russell improvised, and it made me laugh hysterically. It was emblematic of Arthur's childlike vision and the way he expresses his perceptions right out loud."
As Arthur stumbles into maturity with the help of his nanny, Hobson (Helen Mirren), and his true love, Naomi (Greta Gerwig), Winer set out to hook the audience on Brand's comic and leading-man qualities. "Russell is not an underdog," Winer said. "He's charming and handsome and tall" — the perfect resident for the penthouse of the Pierre Hotel, his own castle atop the city.
Brand and Mirren enjoyed a scintillating sparring match in Julie Taymor's film version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest." In "Arthur," they're comic antagonists and partners. "One of his favorite games is looking down on the street through binoculars with his nanny Hobson. He is seeing the city from above, not living in it. He childishly calls out to her about nine times: 'Hobson! Hobson! Hobson! Hobson! Hobson!' — until she finally comes into the room. Then he holds up the binoculars and points out 'lesbian Simon and Garfunkel.'"
What makes the scene delicious, Winer said, is "Helen's look. She rolls her eyes and then her face transforms — you see she can't resist playing along. That's their relationship: She finds him ridiculous and irresistible all at once."
Hobson first brings audiences inside Arthur's world. But to express the audience's changing view of Arthur, Winer chose Gerwig, who just won raves in the indie hit 'Greenberg.'" As Naomi, an unlicensed New York City tour guide, she's a "lovably awkward duckling" who is "flattered by him, slightly charmed by him, but finds him absurd, because he is. He is a larger-than-life, almost cartoon character. Through her, and through his affection for her, he becomes a human being."
On the set, Gerwig was "absolutely tickled by him," Winer said. "She couldn't keep a straight face around him. And I loved that. It's pretty easy to get actors to cry on film. It's very difficult to get actors to genuinely laugh on film."
To create the right setting for the stylized characters — including a gleefully villainous Jennifer Garner as a careerist witch — Winer drew on his childhood as a Baltimore boy with a starry-eyed view of the Big Apple. "New York, when I was young, was a fantasy for me," he said. "It remains to this day an iconic, shimmering ideal of what urban living can be. Ironically, before shooting the movie, I had never lived there for any period of time."
Even more ironic is that Winer got to make an offbeat comedy precisely because it was a remake. "It's got bawdy farce, it's got romance, and it's got a little bit of drama. That combination isn't easy for studio executives to swallow in an original property. But when a property has name recognition, you can do something different. It's an ironic trade-off."