Summer of ‘88: Bud Yorkin’s Arthur 2: On the Rocks at 25

The sequel to Steve Gordon’s Arthur wears its intentions on its sleeve.

Summer of '88: Arthur 2: On the Rocks
Photo: Warner Bros.

The sequel to Steve Gordon’s Arthur, the 1981 mini-classic that successfully resurrected the spirit of 1930s screwball comedy, wears its intentions on its sleeve. Right from the initial beats of the opening song, “Love Is My Decision,” we’re prompted not so much to have a good time as to take in a life lesson. “Life is more than just good times, and parties,” Chris De Burgh seemingly admonishes in what suggests a bizarre cover of Christopher Cross’s Oscar-winning hit from the first film, and the film takes its cue from that line.

Dudley Moore’s original take on Arthur Bach was a charming, whimsical, and utterly unrealistic conceit: a comic creation we couldn’t get enough of, and yet would have steered away from in real life. A lovable, wisecracking drunk, he was the perfect opposite of W.C. Fields—not in his propensity to drink too much, but in demeanor. Good-natured and good-humored, he didn’t have a beef with anyone. Protected from everyday reality by the solid padding of his family fortune, Arthur treated the whole world as a joke, and his laughter had the wild abandon of someone with no melancholic bone in his body. Intoxication was what Arthur needed to float one foot above the ground at all times. Even though his faithful butler, Hobson (John Gielgud), served as a poised reality principle (a Jeeves to Moore’s Bertie, but blunter and more irreverent), we still sided with Arthur at all times. Nobody wanted him to lose his wealth for the sake of true love for working-class Linda (Liza Minnelli). We all wanted him to have his drink and his full bottle of champagne too.

What the sequel does to Arthur is prevent him from breezing though yet another harmless, bubbly adventure, and instead sets out to make a man out of him. The experience of watching Arthur learn the meaning of responsibility and fatherhood is anything but rewarding; the closest thing it resembles is witnessing a lobotomy in real-time close-up.

The movie starts with Arthur and Linda perfectly happy together, even though the script by Andy Breckman doesn’t really find a convincing way to depict their marital bliss. The limitations of the original concept of Linda come into full view here, as her suddenly communicated desire for a child seems unwarranted, since she already has one in the form of Arthur. (As Helen Mirren’s Hobson says of her charge in the unfortunate 2011 remake of Arthur: “He’s merely shaped like an adult.”) Arthur’s propensity for playing with toys and splashing around in a tub is showcased here even more than in the first film, posing an uncomfortable question about the nature of the couple’s sex life. In fact, the only about-to-have-sex scene we get takes place in an unfinished nursery atop a pile of baby clothes, which further complicates the already awkward libidinal dynamic of Arthur and Linda’s woman-and-a-grown-child relationship. Pauline Kael hit the nail on the head when, reviewing the first film, she suggested that “Arthur would be better off marrying Hobson.”

Still, Linda does want an actual child, and since she cannot have one, the couple opts for adoption. It’s then that Arthur’s drinking is first defined as an actual problem. Still, it’s the money that provides the major plot twist, with Arthur’s arch enemy, Bert Johnson (Stephen Elliott), rendering him effectively broke. The script has his daughter, whom Arthur had ditched at the altar in the first film, still carrying a torch for Arthur—and rather inexplicably, since Cynthia Sikes, who plays her, lacks even a touch of kookiness that would make her capable of such an unusual infatuation (in the first film, the part was played by Jill Eikenberry, who brought some near-lunacy to her devotion, thus making it work as comedy). As Arthur begins looking for a job, the film loses whatever steam it had courtesy of our fond memories of the 1981 movie (and maybe even Lost in America, from which a scene set inside an employment agency was lifted wholesale).

The movie is shameless in how deep it’s willing to sink into the gunk of icky, maudlin tear-jerking. Just when you thought of Kathy Bates’s sunny-as-hell adoption agent as the film’s nadir, the script serves us a straight-faced Christmas-miracle sequence in which the dead Hobson is resurrected and walks through snowy New York City with Arthur, instructing him to stop drinking and get a grip on his life. In other words, the film suggests that alcohol was merely incidental to Arthur’s enjoyment of life—which destroys the core of the character and renders the first film irrelevant.

Just as Nick and Nora should have remained childless, Arthur should have never stopped drinking. In fact, one way to have a successful sequel to Arthur could probably have been to have Linda start to drink too. Had they gone stinko together, like a sunnier Days of Wine and Roses couple of your dizzy, irresponsible dreams, they could have been a riot. The movie that we got, of Arthur being taught the bliss of being sober, suggests an imaginary episode of All in the Family in which Archie Bunker goes out of his way to start a neighborhood branch of a gay-straight alliance, or a Looney Tunes short wherein Pepé Le Pew gets fixed.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Michał Oleszczyk

Michal Oleszczyk is a script consultant and critic, and teaches film at the University of Warsaw. He wrote the first Polish monograph of Terence Davies, and his translation of J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum's Midnight Movies was published in 2011.

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