Monday, 27 June 2011

Film Review: Arthur

Arthur has arrived too late for the big eighties-remake cash-in party of last year, but as Christopher Cross' 'Arthur's Theme' deftly put it, "Arthur he does as he pleases". There's certainly a degree of that in this version. On the one hand it follows the general gist of the critically acclaimed 1981 classic, it isn't necessarily afraid to mix things up either. The pertinent thing, however, is whether it works.

Arthur Bach (Brand) is a drunken billionaire playboy devoid of all responsibilities. He cares not for convention, wishing only to 'have fun'. That is until his mother, Vivienne (James), threatens to cut off his allowance if he does not grow-up and marry overly-ambitious business bitch, Susan (Garner). As fate would have it, no sooner does he reluctantly cave to his mother's blackmail than he falls in love with a common girl, unlicensed tour guide, Naomi (Gerwig).

Drawing parallels to the original is unavoidable, with differences ranging from the superficial to deeper characterisations. The most striking is that a fair few of the supporting cast, who were male in the original, have now been replaced with women. Notably John Gielgud's dry-witted Hobson, Arthur's butler in the original, has given way to the feistier Helen Mirren's character of the same name; less a butler, more of a nanny. The female characters in the new Arthur have been empowered, so much so as to emasculate males to the point where they're seemingly utterly incapable. Likewise, where in the original it was Arthur's father who presided over the family's multi-billion dollar company, it is now his fearsome mother who altogether has a far colder demeanour. Even Arthur's fiance, Susan - who had a very limited role in the original film and was portrayed as pure, dippy and almost an innocent victim of events - is given an expanded berth in the new as a straight-for-the-jugular go-getter, lustful only for power. Her father on the other hand is portrayed as a hapless oaf who communicates only through threats of violence. While on the one hand you might see this as a score for feminism, it nonetheless removes the strong male characters that were in the first and replaces them with vivacious women, while keeping only the childlike males to reinforce the 'idiocy' of their gender. If director Jason Winer really wanted to replace all the leads with women he may as well have cast Madonna and renamed the film 'Martha'.

As far as characters go however, the real meat is in the difference between Dudley Moore and Russell Brand. Moore's portrayal immediately reeks of something tragic; here is a man who has everything but still feels the need to blot out the world with alcohol and pick up hookers. While ordinarily one might be inclined to dismiss this as a petulant rich bastard, Moore's Arthur manages to throw such connotations away and yearn effectively for our sympathies. Brand on the other hand is a petulant rich bastard. Yes, both are supposed to be frivolous, but where Moore blows his cash on alcohol and fine suits, Brand goes a step further, buying any novelty car he can find and priceless historical items at auction only to treat them with utter disdain. It might do very well to capture the spendthrift nature of the character, but Brand's ostentatious use of money, especially in difficult economic times like these, is nothing short of vulgar.

Brand may be 'lighter' and more 'fun', but the 2011 version does attempt to deal with subject matter of Arthur's alcoholism and subsequent behaviour. It is very heavy on the morals as Arthur is imprisoned for drink-driving and we are witness to scenes of him attending AA - things which the original utterly ignored. Conversely, Moore's Arthur barely comments on the consequences, which perhaps displays the change in mentality over the last thirty-years. While the new incarnation makes a half-hearted attempt to pin the root of Arthur's problems on his father's death, it fails to add any depth to an otherwise unlikable brat. Indeed, while more is attempted to be made with Brand's character, Moore's Arthur has an unspoken profundity that need not be deliberated upon.

The clearest difference however is that Moore is purposely over-the-top; he is the hyperbole of drunk. Brand on the other hand merely seems to be playing himself. Brand's chemistry with co-star Gerwig is seldom palpable at best which leaves the spotlight to predictably fall on Mirren as Hobson. There are few actors in the world that command the same gravitas as Gielgud, but if there is one, Mirren is it. In a way, Mirren represents a victory for stoic talent over massive attention whore, her performance being the best part about the film. By the end of the night, Arthur stumbles around drunkenly and ends up in a gutter.