As a remake of a beloved comedy long since enveloped by hazy nostalgia, the new version of Arthur will be inevitably saddled by the ghost of its predecessor, a condition exacerbated by how much of the transfer it bungles. Seemingly doomed from conception, the film takes on the nearly impossible task of redefining an iconic role with a limited actor who many find to border on unbearable, while also attempting to soften the original's wholehearted embrace of impenitent bad behavior. If this version fails, it's at least partially because it's been sent on the cinematic equivalent of a suicide mission.
Yet audiences should be at least somewhat grateful that this update is not nearly as bad as it might be, ending up as a solid mid-level comedy with a few laughs and a relatively forthright way of doing business. This is a pleasant surprise, especially as initial indicators seem to suggest a brewing disaster, with the lanky Russell Brand straining mightily to emulate Dudley Moore's effortlessly soused playboy. Moore's delivery in the original, stumbling from a squeaky upper register to a disheveled growl, was a natural destabilization of the impish actor's voice. Brand, who remains admirably committed despite being in over his head, sounds consistently uncomfortable trying to reproduce it, a blunder that only serves to point out the awkwardness of a recovering alcoholic pretending to be an unrepentant alcoholic. The film seems prepared for such queasy moments, throwing up a lazy “But he's just an overgrown child!” defense whenever reality threatens the game at hand.
Somehow, despite these glaring faults, Arthur settles into a reasonable simulacrum of the spirit of the original, guided by a relatively strong script from The Day Today/Brass Eye alum Peter Baynham. Its success partially results from the fact that Arthur's myopic denial of anything unpleasant mirrors the film's own, or that of comedy in general, as in a scene where the billionaire attempts to end the recession by blindly handing out cash.
Unwilling to push the spectacle of public drunkenness too far, this version mines laughs from the character's ribald monetary excess; some scenarios, like a freewheeling splurge at an auction, feel strained, while others (an askance mention of having paid Elton John two million dollars to sing over a supermarket loudspeaker) strike a perfect chord of absurdity and wastefulness. Some of this is shine left over from the original, but sharp details like the bizarre fantasia of Arthur's penthouse apartment at least help to generate comedy, providing it a lived-in atmosphere in which to take root.
Replacing John Gielgud's caretaker Hobson with Helen Mirren's nanny of the same name, the film hammers in the point of Arthur as a wayward, fatherless child coddled by potential mother figures, but never really does anything with this new element. Other tonal shifts occur. Dudley Moore's Arthur was driven by a boring fiancée into the arms of working-class eccentric played by Liza Minnelli, while Brand's Arthur is pushed by a social-climbing eccentric (Jennifer Garner) into the arms of a boring working-class girl.
The love interest played by Greta Gerwig parallels our untamed protagonist, too, but like so many modern female foils, her merits stem less from evident qualities than an adherence to acceptable virtues. She's perfect for him because she accepts his true nature while applying a firm hand to his real flaws, all the while refusing to compromise her integrity, an ersatz mother figure in a film that pretends to eschew them. For this version to really work, her character's free spirit needs to match Arthur's, but that free spirited only extends as far as running unlicensed New York City tours, writing children's books, and being poor. A stronger match would have made this remake feel less sadly derivative.
The original Arthur felt transgressive because it so forcefully eschewed lessons, allowing its protagonist to coast along unreformed, ending up with a combination soulmate/caretaker. Arthur the drunk was an admirable constant, permanently impervious to the demands of the real world. The character Brand creates here is undoubtedly inferior, halfway committed to notions of respectability and redemption that don't square with an otherwise carefree depiction of recklessness, alcoholism, and irresponsibility. Yet by shifting the focus from the pleasures of continuous drunkenness to the release of money boldly wasted for fun, Arthur at least manages to shape itself into a genial bit of entertainment.