Film Review: “Arthur”

by Jason LeRoy on April 8, 2011

Russell Brand and Helen Mirren in ARTHUR. Photo by Barry Wetcher – © 2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

starring: Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Garner, Nick Nolte, Luis Guzmán, Geraldine James

written by: Peter Baynham (screenplay), Steve Gordon (story)

directed by: Jason Winer

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for alcohol use throughout, sexual content, language and some drug references.

Arthur is an unnecessary but charming remake of a film I’ve never seen. I thought about watching it as research before seeing the new version, directed by Jason Winer (Modern Family) from a script by Peter Baynham (known for his work with British comedians like Steve Coogan, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Catherine Tate). But then I decided I’d rather come to it with a fresh perspective, and watch the original at a later date (because Liza, duh).

Russell Brand stars as Arthur, a frequently drunk, spoiled playboy heir who’s never worked a day in his life. He lives an impossibly rarefied existence in a palatial Manhattan penthouse, where he is kept isolated from the outside world and his family’s business. His personal contact is mostly restricted to Hobson (Helen Mirren, reuniting with Brand after the stultifying The Tempest), his lifelong nanny/caretaker, and Bitterman (Luis Guzmán, always a delight), his butler/playmate. He has a strictly professional relationship with his chilly mother, Vivienne (Geraldine James), and a never-ending series of meaningless flings with the girls who show up for the nonstop parties constantly raging in his home. As Hobson says, “He is only shaped like an adult.”

His antics have made him a bit of a tabloid star, much to the embarrassment of his family. And so, Vivienne issues him an ultimatum: either marry Susan (Jennifer Garner), a ruthlessly ambitious woman climbing the ladder at his family’s company, which would reassure the Board and the stakeholders; or be cut off entirely. Arthur reluctantly agrees, despite the fact that Susan is a nightmare she-monster and her father (Nick Nolte, who seems on the verge of expectorating a lung with every raspy word that spits out of him) is a thuggish contractor from Pittsburgh (as a Pittsburgh native, I’m accustomed to what this signifies in movies, although Arthur introduces a pleasing element of menace to it).

But everything changes for Arthur when he meets Naomi (indie sweetheart Greta Gerwig, looking suspiciously tan and thin in her biggest Hollywood role yet), an aspiring children’s book author who also operates some kind of guerrilla-whimsy tour group, which is constantly sending her afoul of the law for doing things like laying down on the floor of Grand Central Station to look at the ceiling. Despite my predisposition to liking Gerwig, I was prepared to hate her when I realized she was playing a “free spirit” who wears fedoras, floral-print jumpers with wide belts, and handmade name tags with stars drawn on them. But fortunately Gerwig is anchored enough to keep the character from floating off into space. And when Arthur starts to fall in love with her despite his arrangement with Susan, it bursts the bubble of his privileged life and puts his whole future in jeopardy.

While I believe Hollywood is rather overestimating the appeal of Russell Brand by giving him so many starring vehicles where he essentially plays variations on the same character, this is perhaps his most well-rounded performance yet. And of course he brings a great deal of humor to the role, which plays well off the many foils arranged around him. Namely, Mirren and Gerwig, who do a great deal of the film’s heavy lifting. Their humane, unexpected performances do wonders in elevating the film, especially given how cloying and one-note the characters may have read on the page. I wish I could say the same for Garner, who grievously miscalculates her attempt at playing a villain. She registers an utterly charmless and unpleasant performance.

The film is whimsical without being obnoxious (and believe me, I have a very low tolerance for whimsy), featuring an elegant score by Theodore Shapiro that gives it a more upscale feel than your standard rom-com hodgepodge of Top 40 hits. Arthur is about as good as you could reasonably expect it to be, and maybe even a bit better.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

jen April 8, 2011 at 3:47 pm

and now we need to have a screening of the original STAT.

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