America never seems to get tired of seeing middle-aged men acting like complete children, a fact which has probably bought Will Ferrell
and Adam Sandler
some very nice houses. It’s hardly an under-represented genre in Hollywood, but it’s a successful one, so it’s little surprise that one of its high-water marks, 1981’s Arthur
, should be the recipient of a remake. (Perhaps the only thing Hollywood likes more than arrested development.) What is
surprising is how limp and by-the-numbers the resulting product feels.
Following closely in the plot of the original film, this year’s Arthur
follows its titular character ( Russell Brand
), scion of a billionaire family that’s run an investment company for decades. Spoiled beyond belief, his every need taken care of by a trusty nanny, Hobson ( Helen Mirren
), he makes a habit of consumption that is not so much conspicuous as it is a Vegas-sized flashing neon sign saying “I’M FUCKING RICH!” In the film’s first five minutes, he drives a replica of Michael Keaton’s Batmobile into the Charging Bull statue in NYC, bails out everyone in the jail he’s brought to, and in response to a reporter’s question about the recession (the single nod to the unfortunate fact that a broad swath of the audience might find all this less impressive than somewhat distasteful), he brings the assorted crowd to an ATM and withdraws $72,000 to shower upon them. (That’s a hell of a daily withdrawal limit.)
Brand, at least, embodies Arthur with a single-minded ignorance of the way the world really works; he resembles no one quite as much as he does a less sweet version of Ferrell’s character in Elf
, in that his encounters with the real world generally result in him being wide-eyed and fascinated by the smallest minutia, like train stations and generic-brand Spaghetti-O’s, that ordinary people deal with every day. (Upon being given some change from someone who mistakes him for a homeless man, he exclaims: “Coins! I used to play with these when I was a boy!”)
Of course, the movie wouldn’t be much without some kind of tension behind it, and thus Arthur is eventually forced to marry Susan ( Jennifer Garner
), a young executive at his mother’s company, lest he lose his inheritance. The investors in their company, you see, are starting to be startled by his ever-more-shocking behavior, and need him to be brought in line before he eventually takes over the company. Why have a completely ineffectual person run a company when he doesn’t want to and shows no aptitude for the job? Why not simply find a nice, successful MBA sort to do it? Because then we wouldn’t have a movie, I suppose.
The complication, of course, comes from the fact that while Arthur doesn’t love Susan, he does
love the impossibly sweet and gentle Naomi ( Greta Gerwig
), a girl from the poor side of the tracks who falls for his innocent charm after their first meet-cute and quickly shows him a different side of life than what he’s used to. She doesn’t know he’s engaged, and he doesn’t think he can get along without the substantial gobs of money that he’d be losing if he gave up his engagement. Will true love win out in the end? Will Arthur ever become a productive adult? Will he ever learn to live without alcohol? Most of these questions are relatively tension-free (this is a rom-com, after all), but that last question is resolved via the interesting decision to throw Arthur into Alcoholics Anonymous. A nod to the realities of alcoholism, perhaps, but hardly a recipe for hilarity.
has a winning supporting cast, with Gerwig being especially charming as the essentially perfect Naomi, and Mirren classes up the joint to a degree which only she seems capable of these days. The film lives or dies, though, on your ability to put up with Brand for two hours; fans of his will get something out of this, but he’s done no favors by a weak script, full of sitcom-level one-liners that fail to elicit much laughter. The character itself is also exceedingly difficult to sympathize with; billionaire playboys can be done right, if they’re believable (see either of The Thomas Crown Affair
films, for instance), but Arthur here winds up being such a cartoon that he’s hard to like, let alone to relate to when the film takes a turn for the melodramatic. The direction of Jason Winer
, a career TV director, is by-the-numbers and unimaginative, but at least manages to avoid overshadowing any of the slight emotions that are elicited by the cast.
This is a movie that feels almost entirely rote, and almost spectacularly divorced from the economic realities facing its audience. The original Arthur
was issued at the beginning of a recession, but this adaptation has the misfortune of arriving at the tail end of a lengthier and harsher economic downturn; watching a billionaire man-child cavort around a mostly consequence-free environment is only slightly less appealing as a fiction at this point than it would be if he was the son of a Lehman Brothers executive. That this ostensible comedy is not very funny is a serious strike against it; that its lead is effectively impossible to sympathize with should convince any but the most dedicated Russell Brand fans to stay away.