When it was released in 1981, the original Arthur, starring Dudley Moore as the titular developmentally arrested drunken millionaire, earned $82 million at the box office—the fourth highest take for that year—and won two Oscars (one for supporting actor John Gielgud and one for its catchy, synth-heavy theme song about being caught between the moon and New York City). Its embarrassing sequel, 1988’s Arthur 2: On the Rocks, earned just $14 million and a Golden Raspberry award for Liza Minnelli. In the interest of full disclosure, I skipped Arthur 2 (I was a particularly discerning 8-year-old), but still feel confident in reporting that the new, somewhat inexplicable remake (who, exactly, was clamoring for a present-day Arthur, other than Russell Brand’s agent?) reaches neither the highs of the original nor the lows of its sequel. Instead, it falls squarely in the middle: perfectly mediocre and blandly entertaining, it’s a glossy, inoffensive update that hardly strays at all from its predecessor’s plot, even lifting a good deal of dialogue verbatim.
And therein lies the problem. If it’s not different and it’s not better, then why does it exist?
The answer lies in Brand, a performer known as much for his outrageous persona as for his box office bankability. His Arthur Bach is a rich, spoiled 13-year-old boy trapped in a man’s body who spends his time getting blotto, hosting parties and taking classic movie cars for spins around town with his driver, Bitterman (Luis Guzmán in a tiny, humiliating role). His only friend is his nanny, Hobson (Helen Mirren), who tries in vain to keep him out of trouble. But when Arthur is arrested for crashing the Batmobile into the Wall Street bull, shareholders in the Bach company get jitters, causing his mother (Geraldine James) to give him an ultimatum: marry the Town & Country-ready socialite-on-steroids, Susan (Jennifer Garner), or be cut off from his $750 million inheritance.
No sooner has Arthur resigned himself to a loveless but financially lucrative marriage does he meet Naomi (Greta Gerwig), a poor, wide-eyed dreamer who makes a living giving illegal guided tours of Grand Central station. Playful and sweetly dim, she’s the perfect match for Arthur, and he falls instantly, juggling his fiery fiance and his kooky new girlfriend while trying to decide if he can finally grow up and live without the money that’s been enabling his hedonistic lifestyle.
I won’t rehash the rest of the plot—if you’ve seen the original, you know it already—but suffice to say everything turns out exactly how you think it will. But my problem with the new Arthur isn’t its lack of originality. My problem is that it’s got no edge; it’s the cinematic equivalent of an oversize Gummi bear (which, incidentally, Arthur dresses up as during a brief stint of employment at Dylan’s Candy Bar).
Brand is, arguably, perfect for the role—in real life he’s basically already Arthur, a fun-loving, quick-witted, misbehaving cad. But none of Brand’s signature brash charm is on display in the movie. He plays Arthur with a daffy, dim-witted, childlike affect that recalls a cross between Willy Wonka and Josh Baskin from Big (Moore’s version looks about as manly and competent as John Wayne by comparison). Similarly, Gerwig’s spacey, clueless ingenue is no match for Minnelli’s tough, confident gal Friday. While Mirren does the emotional heavy lifting and Garner provides broad comic relief, Brand and Gerwig wander through the film like Gumby and Pokey, so painstakingly innocent that sometimes, instead of the Batmobile, you half expect Bitterman to arrive driving a short bus.
If you’re inclined toward terrible puns, as I happen to be, you might say this slick new Arthur errs far more toward the moon than New York City. But it’s not without its moments. Even without his bite, Brand is a skilled comedian, and Mirren is predictably wonderful, lending the movie both heart and wit. Let’s just hope they stop now. No one needs a second Arthur 2.
Arthur (PG-13) ★★☆☆☆