The best they can do?
No doubt it looked good on paper. Remake the Oscar-winning comedy “Arthur.” Sub in Britain’s hot comic flasher Russell Brand as the drunken billionaire playboy that Dudley Moore made so effortlessly appealing in the ‘80s Cinderella story. Instead of John Gielgud’s bitingly brilliant butler, have the bad boy be tended by Britain’s reigning queen, Helen Mirren. The cherry on top: a current cover of “Arthur’s Theme” -- you know, “When you get caught between the moon and New York City....”
But paper and possibilities do not a movie make. I’m guessing even Christopher Cross is cross.
Where to begin with what went wrong when just about everything did? For those unfamiliar with the story, Arthur (Brand) is a big boy with family money who is throwing away his life, and considerable amounts of cash, on booze and broads. Hobson (Mirren) is the nanny who picks up after him. His dilemma: Should he choose the penniless girl he loves and lose his inheritance or acquiesce to family demands and marry the rich girl he doesn’t? Basically, will this inebriated Peter Pan grow up and sober up?
But “Arthur’s” problems actually begin with Peter Baynham’s update (downgrade?) of writer-director Steve Gordon’s original screenplay, which wasn’t perfect to begin with. Baynham was one of four hands stirring the very inventive pot of 2006’s “Borat” But where that film was the epitome of political incorrectness in the best possible way, “Arthur’s” been strangely cleaned up.
The sanitizing is handled so artlessly it seems driven by fear of offending rather than by any true cultural sensitivity. So, for the addiction crowd there’s a new AA story line. In deference to celebs with embarrassing shoplifting tendencies, instead of the clever tie-snatching that creates the meet-cute between Arthur and Liza Minnelli’s hard-working waitress Linda, there’s Greta Gerwig -- badly underused but with a better name, Naomi -- and a lesser crime, a tour guide permit infraction. Where Linda hopes to be an actress, Naomi wants to write and illustrate children’s books. It’s all very nice.
Whatever the story issues, and there are more, the lion’s share of the grief will have to go to director Jason Winer -- I think he did get caught between the moon and New York City.
Though “Arthur” is Winer’s first feature film, it’s not as if he’s never been in the director’s chair, having helped shape ABC’s exceedingly satisfying comedy “Modern Family.” What works there is exactly what undercuts “Arthur.” Winer, it turns out, is a master of small, tightly constructed moments, and when those come along, the director does an excellent job of capturing the eccentric comic brand of Brand.
But the action and narrative interplay are not strong enough to hold up the sheer weight of a film. Instead, there are sags so deep they would defy even the best plastic surgeon’s scalpel. Director of photography Uta Briesewitz, perhaps sensing a catastrophe in the making, keeps his distance. There are lots of wide shots, which dilute the emotional moments so necessary to balance Arthur’s debauchery, particularly in a modern day grown tired of substance-abuse-induced tabloid train wrecks.
Brand, an ingenious comic on his best days, has his moments. But his Arthur is more brutish than boyish and harder to love. However, if you’re in the mood to watch him make the difficult journey from substance-abusing entitlement to human being, you’ll find a far more nuanced and affecting performance as the rock renegade in writer-director Nicholas Stoller’s “Get Him to the Greek.”
The women in the film are all squandered. Gerwig, whose flightiness was so charming in “Greenberg,” simply comes untethered here. No chemistry, no connection with Brand. Jennifer Garner, who plays the cachet-climbing fiancee that Arthur so dislikes, goes to such extremes you wonder if she was told this was a cage-fighting film. (The role of maniacally protective father, so crafty in Stephen Elliott’s hands in the original, was bleached and shrunk before Nick Nolte had a chance.)
Meanwhile, Mirren, that grande dame of cinema, just seems tired. And who could blame her? She’s in the midst of this disaster, literally and figuratively dying right in front of us. Made me want to cry, just not for Arthur.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for alcohol use throughout, sexual content, language and some drug references
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing: In general release