Friday, April 15, 2011

'Arthur' is a worthy remake, it may be crazy, but it's true

Remakes are more often than not unnecessary and just repackage a popular title because it is easier and safer than coming up with something new. The new version of “Arthur,” the 1981 film starring Dudley Moore as a drunken playboy millionaire, but now personified by Russell Brand, is largely being dismissed by critics as a cynical cash grab.

A good remake will discover something new in the material or provide a different angle that the previous version didn't. Sometimes, though, it is simply nice to see what a new cast does with the characters. That's the case with “Arthur,” which, thanks to strong casting, entertains, even if it falls short of matching its predecessor.

Brand, who is intelligent and quick-witted in interviews and who has battled his own drug and alcohol demons in real life, is in many ways the perfect performer to take on this role.

Moore's Arthur was basically the definitive comic drunk. It is a performance that couldn't be topped or even emulated, but Brand does a good job fitting his persona into this character. As with last year's “Get Him to the Greek,” Brand shows that he can dial down his wilder antics and create moments of pathos and even warmth.

The plot of both films are identical. The title character is heir to a business fortune, but his drunken tomfoolery has led to an ultimatum from his family: marry Susan Johnson (played in the original by Jill Eikenberry and Jennifer Garner in the new version) or lose the money. Arthur is willing to enter this loveless marriage until he meets a lower middle class girl from Queens (played in the original by Liza Minnelli and Greta Gerwig in the new version) and instantly falls in love.

As was true with the original, while there are sharply written scenes of romantic banter in both films, the most important relationship in the film is between Arthur and his butler Hobson, who was brilliantly played by John Gielgud with an acid tongue, but warm heart. In a gender switch, Hobson is now Arthur's nanny and is ideally played by Helen Mirren.

The original “Arthur” was a throwback to the whimsical screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s right down to the class clash between the wealthy and poor. Much like many of those films, “Arthur” ended with everything arbitrarily working out just fine.

This new “Arthur” keeps the screwball plot, but tries to play it more realistically, relatively speaking. In 1981 it was possible to still get away with squeezing laughs from alcoholism. Director Jason Winer and screenwriter Peter Baynham have decided that you still can, but that you need to have the character address his problem. Yes, Arthur goes to AA in this new film, but it actually isn't too heavy handed as far as these sort of things go.

Arthur also has to work harder to win over his love in this new incarnation because she is less forgiving of the fact that Arthur is engaged to another woman. It makes for a very different tone at the ending and one that doesn't quite work, but it isn't a failure either.

The other major departure from the original is the expansion of the Susan role. In the original, the character was more a plot point than anything else. Here she is now a manipulative, controlling social climber. She is thoroughly unlikable as played by Garner and, in this case, that is a compliment. It makes you root for Brand and Gerwig all the more.

Mirren and Brand play well off each other, and while their banter doesn't quite have the same spark as Moore and Gielgud it is still effective. As was true with the original, their relationship is the heart of the film and the dynamic still works even when the script forces in a couple cloying moments.

Brand also has nice chemistry with Gerwig, who has an instantly lovable screen presence. She is sweet and charming, but can also toss a barbed one liner. Nick Nolte steals a couple scenes as Susan's intimidating father, and Luis Guzman gets some laughs as a goofier version of Bitterman, Arthur's driver.

So, this new “Arthur” isn't perfect, but it works. I liked it. It may be crazy, but it is true.

No comments: