Hysterical ‘Arthur’ Antics Overcome Weaknesses

Arthur -- Dir. Jason Winer (Warner Bros.) -- 3.5 Stars

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Russell Brand plays Arthur, a juvenile playboy and the protagonist of Jason Winer’s remake of the 1981 classic, “Arthur.”

Jason Winer’s “Arthur” could be the archetypal case study of arrested development. The titular character, played by Russell Brand, is the neotenous adult, a child trapped in a man’s body with the wealth to live out his wildest fantasies. The basic premise of the film is a familiar one: the juvenile Arthur’s raucous escapades and drunken excesses are juxtaposed with his emotional instability and cast as symptoms of absent parenting. The banality of this well-worn plot, however, is easily counterbalanced by the sardonic comedic chemistry between Brand and his mother-like figure, Nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren). Indeed, the enjoyment one derives from this movie—enough to make audiences erupt in spontaneous bursts of shot-gun giggles—rests on the dry synthesis of the pair who both inhabit and parody the absurdity of their characters.

Arthur Bach is a wealthy playboy who is cared for in every regard by his Nanny, and whose publicized antics have begun to damage the respectability of the Bach family business. In an attempt to curtail Arthur’s extravagant recklessness, his frigid mother (Geraldine James) gives him an ultimatum: either marry maniacal corporate executive Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner) or face being disinherited. At this timely—or untimely—moment, Arthur meets love-to-be Naomi Quinn (Greta Gerwig), whose aspirations to be a children’s book writer seem almost too perfectly suited to Arthur’s pseudo-maturity. What then ensues are days of desperate deliberation, during which Arthur must decide between his inheritance and the girl of his dreams.

Despite the consummate performances of Mirren and Brand, however, the plot is a triumph of inanity. As a remake of the Oscar-winning movie from 1981 starring Dudley Moore and Liza Minelli, the story—original on its first release—now appears trite and somewhat morally vacuous, largely because this update of the film tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, the plot’s basic moral is the value of love over money, demonstrated when Arthur finds the backbone to disregard his inheritance in lieu of Naomi. However, this message is subverted by the movie’s conclusion, in which Arthur drives down a New York city street in his novelty car with Naomi perched next to him—that is, with both the girl and the money. Not only is the film guilty of peddling a hackneyed life lesson, but its own ending undermines the mantra it claims to preach.

Setting aside the film’s moral miasma, though, it must be acknowledged that nearly every actor perfectly fulfills his or her comedic role in the movie despite the long shadow cast by the celebrated original film—Brand must fill the shoes of comedic icon Dudley Moore, whilst Greta Gerwig must compete with Liza Minnelli. “Arthur” also manages to sidestep some of this legacy by replacing the original Butler Hobson with the female Nanny Hobson. These performances ground the film and enable it to transcend its unremarkable storyline.

The role of Arthur is one that Russell Brand seamlessly inhabits. Indeed, as Brand’s film career progresses, it is perhaps fitting for him to take on the role that catapulted another British comedian—Dudley Moore—to Hollywood stardom. Brand’s Arthur, however, is more innocent, his character’s child-like attributes consistently amplified. Arthur’s youthful simplicity, as evinced by Brand, allows for him to perform scenes with authenticity that in less capable hands would descend into absurdity—including one in which Arthur is dressed in a gummy-bear costume with his mouth coated by the sticky remnants of the sweets he has just consumed.

The style of this light-hearted performance—synthesizing parody and pathos—is not limited to Brand. Helen Mirren’s quip to Arthur of “wash your winky” simultaneously reflects her ability to inhabit the role of mother-figure to a stunted adult while mocking the role’s absurdity. Jennifer Garner, as Brand’s bride-to-be, is also not so much an archetypal corporate executive as a caricature of one: abrasively ambitious, cut-throat, menacing, and with a surprisingly bizarre sexual appetite that leaves even Arthur the playboy running for cover.

The quality of these cleverly conceived characters means that when all is said and done, though “Arthur” is inherently hampered by its banal plot, the film still largely succeeds. Ultimately, the logic, ingenuity, and even coherence of the film’s narrative progression is beside the point. Rather, it is the absurdity of Brand’s actions, Mirren’s wry humor, and a sparkling set of supporting performances that enable “Arthur” to coalesce into a delightful comedy—even if it entirely lacks substantive moral value.

—Staff writer Sarah L. Hopkinson can be reached at shopkinson@college.harvard.edu.

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