Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 7, 2011)
With 2011’s Arthur, we find an update on the 1981 hit. Super-wealthy Arthur Bach (Russell Brand) lives life like a child – a drunken child, that is. He drinks to excess and ignores any semblance of responsibility.
Push comes to shove, however, when his mother Vivienne (Geraldine James) pressures him to marry Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner). Vivienne wants Susan in the family to placate the family business’s shareholders; they’ll feel better with the savvy Susan as the heir apparent. Arthur can’t stand her but agrees to wed Susan when his pop threatens to cut him off from all the money.
Arthur’s life changes he meets Naomi Quinn (Greta Gerwig) at Grand Central Terminal. She runs illegal tours of the station and runs afoul of the law for the umpteenth time. Arthur contrives to help get her out of this and becomes smitten.
A relationship with Naomi excites Arthur, and he enjoys his time with her. However, family pressures continue to frown on this and push him toward a loveless marriage with Susan. What will Arthur choose: his money or his love?
While the original Arthur soared at the box office, the 2011 version tanked. Was this because fans didn’t want to see an update of the story, Brand wasn’t an appealing substitute for Dudley Moore, or the idea of the “lovable drunk” isn’t all that lovable anymore?
I don’t know, but I can say that in my opinion, the remake tops the original. Granted, that doesn’t mean a lot, as I thoroughly disliked the 1981 movie; I felt it provided a grating, unfunny experience with little charm or cleverness, so it came with ample room for improvement.
The 2011 version indeed betters the 1981 in virtually all areas. In particular, the new flick better explains character motivations and related story elements. We understand why Arthur’s such a sot, and we comprehend why Susan wants to be with him. The last area was especially problematic in the 1981 flick, as it never made sense that Susan felt so in love with Arthur; the remake explains the rationale for the proposed marriage in a much more satisfying manner.
The cast create more satisfying performances as well. That may seem like sacrilege given how beloved the work of Moore and John Gielgud appears to be, but I wasn’t wild with their acting. Helen Mirren gives the Hobson role the appropriate edge but adds more humanity; Gielgud’s Hobson simply came across as mean-spirited too much of the time.
Brand seems to be a polarizing performer, and I can’t say I’m a big fan, but I think he makes a better Arthur than Moore. In Moore’s hands, the character was a grating buffoon. Brand goes down that path to a degree, but he imbues the role with a layer of intelligence absent in Moore’s goofball. We actually kind of care about the Brand Arthur, while the Moore one became an annoyance.
The biggest improvement comes from the presence of Gerwig. Actually, I don’t think she’s all that great, but she’s a tremendous step up from Liza Minnelli. Not only was Liza irritating as hell, but also she just wasn’t very attractive. It never made a lick of sense that Arthur would fall for Liza’s character, whereas we can comprehend Gerwig’s appeal.
None of this makes Arthur a great – or even especially good – movie, but it delivers some entertainment. It’s hard to say how I’d view it if I’d not seen – and disliked – the original recently, though I suspect that if the 2001 edition existed in a vacuum, I’d find it to be fairly ordinary.
Which it is, so don’t take my relative praise as a strong endorsement. Nonetheless, the 2011 has some charm and humor involved, and it’s a pleasant enough experience. At the very least, it’s a substantial improvement on the miserable original film.