Thirty years after “Arthur” became one of 1981’s biggest hits, the economy has taken a nosedive, alcoholism has long lost its comic novelty and Charlie Sheen has cornered the market on hooker-happy hedonism — all of which seems to have been nervously taken into account in this innocuous, blandly therapeutic remake of a comedy that wasn’t exactly edgy to begin with. Cast names and lack of mainstream-laffer competition should ensure a healthy commercial profile, but even the Brit-wit chemistry of Russell Brand and Helen Mirren can’t offset the self-conscious degree to which this tame, calculated effort sticks to its source.
The fact that many in the film’s target audience may not have seen Steve Gordon’s still-charming Dudley Moore starrer will likely compel them to check out, rather than avoid, what “Modern Family” director Jason Winer and “Borat” scribe Peter Baynham have wrought here. The fewer reference points one has going in, the better; while “Arthur” avoids overtly winking at its predecessor (apart from a new cover of Christopher Cross’ catchy title theme over the end credits), every beat here is clearly intended to update or embellish an equivalent aspect of the 1981 pic, which would have been fine if the adjustments felt less cautious and more genuinely amusing.
Our introduction to reckless rich boy Arthur Bach (Brand) is less an uproarious setpiece than a Warner Bros. tie-in, as Arthur and his chauffeur, Bitterman (Luis Guzman, ill used), don Batman and Robin costumes and go tearing through the streets of Gotham in a Batmobile. After a long night of drunken carousing with nubile coeds, in steps Hobson (Mirren), Arthur’s dry, dignified nanny, who cleans up after his shenanigans, ensures that he eats a non-liquid breakfast and encourages him to make a positive contribution to society for a change.
Indeed, Arthur’s latest headline-making stunt is the last straw for his mother, Vivienne (Geraldine James). Tired of his outrageously profligate lifestyle, what he calls his “savantish gift for defying death with fun,” she threatens to withhold his $950 million inheritance unless he shapes up and weds Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), New York’s most eligible and emasculating high-society bachelorette. Right on cue, Arthur meets the sweet working-class girl of his dreams, Naomi (Greta Gerwig), a city tour guide whom he attempts to sweep off her feet in the most extravagant manner.
A charming scene in which Arthur arranges a private date with Naomi in a magically emptied-out Grand Central Station suggests Winer and Baynham were trying to fashion a genteel romantic comedy rather than a neo-screwball exercise and to its credit, the generally literate script doesn’t recycle Gordon’s tart zingers. But however well intentioned, the result simply lacks spontaneity and surprise as it progresses from mild laughs and sniffles to madcap wedding-day climax. Story also seems to have been run through a public-service filter, with Arthur now forced to attend AA meetings and endure lectures about the irresponsibility of rampant spending during a recession, further draining the joy from the proceedings.
Feminizing the role that won John Gielgud a supporting actor Oscar, Mirren is typically impeccable as the unswervingly loyal servant who, for all her prim clucks of exasperation, clearly adores her young charge. But the depth and resilience of Arthur and Hobson’s bond, a poignant surprise in the first film, is here telegraphed too insistently from the outset. Making Hobson a nanny immediately softens the duo’s dynamic, and Mirren hasn’t been given the sort of withering dialogue that would compensate.
If the good guys have been made more cuddly, the opposite applies to the designated villains, with Garner forced to play shrieking dominatrix hysterics and Nick Nolte granted a few unpleasant, unfunny scenes as her terror of a father. At the other end of the spectrum, Gerwig is as refreshingly guileless and winsome a presence as ever, though after this film and “Greenberg,” one hopes the onetime mumblecore goddess doesn’t become the go-to girl every time some overgrown man-child needs a warm, earthy love interest.
But any “Arthur” rises and falls on its title character, and while Brand (currently making hay with “Hop”) was clearly cast for his rambunctious energy and quick wit, his outsized persona all but upstages the character. This Arthur isn’t an inebriated layabout who needs help; he’s just a slightly neutered manifestation of the actor’s unruly id, and he doesn’t even seem to be all that drunk half the time. When it comes to Brand’s roles, one expects, sober or sozzled makes little difference.
Smoothly crafted pic makes deft use of New York locations, and production designer Sarah Knowles has a field day with Arthur’s deluxe bachelor pad, particularly the suspended magnetic bed that figures into one of the film’s few attempts at farce. Mellow, feel-good soundtrack is in line with the generally lukewarm approach.