Monday, April 25, 2011

Love: Arthur

It's been a very long time since I saw the Dudley Moore original, but what I remember about the 1981 Arthur is watching it as a teenager and not liking it much.  It must have been fairly forgettable, since my memory has blocked almost everything apart from recollection of it as disappointingly rather unfunny.  With that in mind, I wasn't sure why studio execs decided the world needed a 2011 remake.  Of course, whether it was necessary or not: now we have one.  What's more?  While it may suffer from a case of pseudo-irrelevancy, I have to admit this new Arthur won me over.  Here we have a frequently funny, oddly genuine, never too tiring or preachy, family friendly comedy about alcoholism.  Its star is not the charming Dudley Moore but instead the rather grimy, rough around the edges Russell Brand.  It's a casting that, in some ways, makes sense given the British comedian's past history of addiction.  Yet, this is not Get Him to the Greek, and, as many critics have been quick to point out, Brand is a risky choice who, when trying too hard, tends to  fluctuate rapidly between charming and truly irritating.  Someone somewhere went so far as to label Brand's take on Arthur a "career killer."  Speaking frankly?  That's the kind of statement that makes the journalists come across as utterly pretentious, out of touch squares unwilling to concede that sometimes a film need have no heavier merits than entertainment value, charm, and the ability to elicit a few laughs.
As the incompetent, whiskey soaked, playfully romantic billionaire Arthur Bach, Brand is believably wide-eyed, childish, and excitable.  He skillfully walks a line bisecting youth and adulthood, mixing the disarming elements of one (he's an innocent, well-meaning, toy and cartoon obsessive boy) with the heavier bits of another (parties, booze, sexual politics) while never slipping into mental handicap.  I never questioned Arthur's motivation.  He's a slick and clever as he is spoiled and dependent.  Though he needs his childhood nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren) to complete simple household tasks, Brand plays Arthur's shortcomings off less as idiocy than the toll taken by alcohol and privilege.  He's daft, sure, but charmingly so.  Mirren keeps his character firmly in line, weighing in with concerns that echo the audience's in the moments Arthur leans a little too far out of frame.  She's always the bad ass, and always in possession of an undeniable grace, even when she's reading a 30-year old man a bedtime story.  Consequently, she sells it.  Mirren and Brand have a surprisingly sweet dynamic that does much to keep maintain the film's focus.  When Arthur eventually refers to Hobson as his "mother," the non-biological validation speaks volumes.  Hobson is the film's moral compass.  We are asked, silently, not to judge Arthur's drinking as we otherwise might.  The omnipresent flask, the bottle of Maker's Mark, these are problems, but they're not the only ones.  We must have the patience, essentially, to view this as part of his character for the duration and not the sole focus.  He's a cartoon drunk, the happy-go-lucky, swaying old goose who burps bubbles and entered the scene to provide levity and merriment at costs only to his pride.  It's an old-fashioned perspective, in many ways, and part of  Arthur's critical failure can perhaps be chalked up to the fact that this simply isn't a laughing matter in contemporary America.   The film addresses the darker side of Arthur as little, or as gently, as possible.  It tries its hardest to always keep the champagne flute half full.  That it succeeds in pushing hot button buzz issues into the background is, I think, something of a win for comedy. It's also something of a testament to its actors, who give us the thesis without hammering us over our heads.
Brand and Mirren aside, indie darling Greta Gerwig offers a romantic interest the audience worthy of emotional investment.  As Naomi, an unlicensed, vaguely hipster NYC tour guide, Gerwig is fairly adorable and immediately likable.  She'd grounded, so believably normal, that you instinctively want her to find a happy ending.  Though she appears to deserve more than our alcoholic hero,  when we see that she finds value in him, we feel free to do the see the same.  Brand is a capable enough actor to finely tune the differences in the way he communicates with Naomi, Hobson, and his megalomaniacal intended (Jennifer Garner).  His character's defense mechanisms are varied, he becomes more or less lucid depending on his surroundings.  Each interaction succeeds in finding its humorous quotient with a surplus of pithy commentary and too clever asides.  The result is a warmly welcoming hot toddy, a film that may be made up of empty calories, but which is, regardless, enjoyable and comfortable.  

2 comments:

  1. Nifty review! Couldn't agree more that this film is indeed rather enjoyable despite all its shortcomings.

    New follower btw - keep up the good work.

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  2. Nice to know there's people on the same page! Thanks!

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