Jason Winer’s remake of Arthur, the 1981 rom com directed and written by Steve Gordon, was the target of some of the more vicious and thoughtless nostalgia that critics have doled out in the last few years. The eponymous hooched-up scion to a considerable fortune was brought to vivid, often quite moving life by the very talented Dudley Moore, who based his performance partially on his longtime comedy partner, Peter Cook. It remains a strong performance, assisted immeasurably by the great John Gielgud as Arthur’s dutiful butler, Hobson. It would seem that the strength of these two performances have helped to embellish the film they were in, which is better-than-competently written but directed with resounding fatigue by Gordon. Indeed, only in its unerring ordinariness could the original Arthur ever be considered a genuine success.
If nothing else can be said about Winer’s film, which takes Russell Brand as its lovably shit-faced heir and the brilliant Helen Mirren as a more maternal Hobson, it takes a few chances with the material that Gordon was never behooved to, which is not to say that this new incarnation is itself a successful film by any means. Penned by Peter Baynham, who has written regularly for both Sacha Baron Cohen and Steve Coogan, the new Arthur sees its hero’s hopes to wander through life in a dipsomaniacal delirium in serious jeopardy upon the news that he must marry his mother’s most trusted confidant, Susan (Jennifer Garner, doing what she can with an overwrought role), to ensure the future of his family’s company. Upon his initial refusal, Arthur’s mother (Geraldine James) threatens to cut off his fortune, a tactic that works beautifully until Arthur lays eyes on Naomi, a plucky wannabe kiddie-lit author and amateur Grand Central Station tour guide played by the luminous Greta Gerwig with natural ease.
Like Gordon, Winer is a television veteran, who most recently served as a director and producer on ABC’s phenomenal Modern Family. It doesn’t come as a galloping shock then that Arthur ultimately feels a bit like an attempt to condense a season of a moderately enjoyable sitcom into a little less than two hours of filmmaking. In this, it’s easy to see how the first half of the film, with its wild flights of fancy and casual structure, fairs far better than the preposterously melodramatic and deeply unfunny final quarter. This largely has to do with the demands put on Brand, who’s able to exude his lackadaisically perverse sense of humor and charm unencumbered for some time before Baynham’s script calls for an excursion into dour dramatic terrain. In Get Him to the Greek, Brand was able to suggest a dark, corroded interior life replete with erratic emotional spikes, but here he’s relegated to rote, humorless emoting. Not even the frequent appearance of the indelible Luis Guzmán, as Arthur’s man-servant-cum-sidekick, and a great cameo from Nick Nolte seem to be able to alleviate the grave, unconvincing dramatic weight.
What director Nicholas Stoller was able to do with Brand in Get Him to the Greek was give him a lush and lively environment to flourish in, mirroring the private and not-so-private perversions of the music industry not only in a myriad of characters but in specific aesthetic choices (furry walls!) and song lyrics written by Jason Segel, Mike Viola, Dan Bern, and Lyle Workman, among others. There are moments when similar notions can be seen in Arthur, such as when our hero rents out Grand Central Station for his first date with Naomi, with trained gymnasts performing in the upper tiers and Pez dispensers designed to resemble the couple. A magnetized floating bed, a movie theater that plays nothing but Looney Tunes episodes, and a Batmobile also number among Arthur’s possessions, and Nolte’s character, Susan’s gruff and grim father, has developed a buzzsaw that shuts down automatically when it comes in contact with moisture. The exuberant lunacy of the rich can be gleaned in fits and stops throughout the film but it never coalesces into something genuinely surreal or sublime or even enjoyably daffy. Story-wise, we’re in a realm that might have pleased Fellini, Buñuel, or Resnais, but Winer, for one reason or another, doesn’t seem to be up to the task of energizing his premise in any unique way, cheating both the audience and his resolutely game cast.
It is, in fact, not hard to see Brand’s Arthur as a quasi-satirical stand-in for Winer and indeed any filmmaker that has been given the gift of a large budget and doesn’t quite know how to capitalize on the blessing. Impossible gadgets, ridiculous costumes and outfits, high-grade entertainment and food, and the Scooby-Doo van are divergences and escapisms of incalculable value, both in terms of wealth and aesthetics, but neither Arthur nor Winer can make much of these fascinating, eccentric novelties, rather using them to patch up what’s lacking. For Winer, these trinkets are not-so-subtle distractions from the glaring lack of sincerity and originality at the center of his film, which he sees fit to dress up with trite lessons about the trappings and essential meaninglessness of money, only to do an about-face right before the credits roll. As if the rich should ever really fear for losing their toys.
Warner Home Video has given Arthur a sufficient 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, but we’re far from the usual exemplary work that the company is usually in the business of affording its releases. The pop of the bright colors that litter Jason Winer’s film, along with the extraordinary sense of detail, often makes it easy to forgive many of the problems with the transfer, such as consistent crush, noise, and oversaturation throughout the film. There’s also an over-processed look to the image, but all things considered, this is a transfer geared toward the best parts of Winer’s film, with colors beautifully pronounced and a very clean aesthetic from beginning to end. The audio gives ample attention to the dialogue and the music choices, but not nearly as much to atmosphere and other low-end parts of the mix. But, in heavy scenes, the mix does strike a rather stunning balance, such as when Arthur must escape a surprise date from Susan to spend the night with Naomi. Again, this is more than serviceable, but altogether, the package is far from perfect.
There’s not that much to speak of here. An 11-minute behind-the-scenes featurette does little to highlight Winer’s process or give many anecdotes about the production, but, for what it’s worth, isn’t dull. The deleted scenes are almost entirely worthless, and the gag reel, at a little over one minute, isn’t long enough to hold anyone’s attention. A DVD copy of the film is also included.
Though not the unholy desecration it was touted as in some corners, Jason Winer’s remake of Arthur is, at best, a missed opportunity, given a suitable but by no means impressive transfer by Warner Home Video.