Last year, I read a review of Get Him to the Greek in which the reviewer—mercifully, I’ve forgotten who it was—cited that movie as evidence that we are currently living in a new golden age of screen comedy. Well, a comparison of Steve Gordon’s original Arthur (1981) with the new remake starring Russell Brand (oddly enough, one of the stars of Get Him to the Greek) is enough to put that dimwitted notion in its place once and for all.
It’s not simply that writer Peter Baynham and director Jason Winer don’t understand what made the original Arthur sweet and honest and touching. That would be bad enough, but it’s worse: They don’t even understand what made it funny.
Brand plays Arthur Bach, zillionaire playboy drunk, spending his idle hours (all his hours are idle) drinking, partying with strangers, cruising New York and making a public spectacle of himself. This exasperates his mother (Geraldine James), an icy tycoon immersed in her many business interests who otherwise would hardly notice Arthur at all.
Mama decides Arthur must settle down, and has decreed that he marry Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), a rising executive in the Bach conglomerate who shares many of Mama’s cutthroat traits (plus a kinky nymphomaniac side that has already turned Arthur off). Mama wants the match, and so do Susan and her father (Nick Nolte). The only one who doesn’t is Arthur, because he’s met Naomi Quinn (Greta Gerwig), an unlicensed tour guide and aspiring writer.
Observing all this with a jaundiced but maternal eye is Hobson (Helen Mirren), Arthur’s nanny, the only person who has ever given him any attention without his having to be naughty to get it.
Where to begin counting the misdemeanors of this miserable, soulless travesty? Perhaps I shouldn’t have revisited Steve Gordon’s original (which I hadn’t seen in 30 years), but I’m glad I did; it reminded me what a jewel it was, and remains.
Arthur (’81) is one of the best love comedies the movies ever produced. I say “love comedy,” not “romantic comedy,” because it wasn’t only about romantic love—Dudley Moore’s Arthur finds that with waitress Linda (Liza Minnelli)—but about family love as well, which Arthur has always had with Hobson.
In the new version, Russell Brand has something like the comic chops of Moore, but shows little of Moore’s ability to be drunk and funny and sad all at the same time, to tickle your funny bone while breaking your heart.
But then, he hardly gets the chance. Steve Gordon’s original dialogue sparkled, endlessly quotable and widely quoted. (“Hobson, I’m going to take a bath.” “I’ll alert the media.” Hooker: “My mother died when I was 6. My father raped me when I was 12.” Arthur: “So you had six relatively good years?”) Peter Baynham’s new script never equals even Gordon’s weakest lines; there’s hardly a word spoken worth remembering. Even the smattering of Gordon’s dialogue that survives rings clunky and false the way it’s handled here.
Worse, Baynham and Winer neglect Arthur’s most important relationships—with Hobson and Linda/Naomi—to give a comic star turn to Jennifer Garner, shoving Greta Gerwig into the background. Instead of scenes showing why Arthur hits it off with Naomi, we get scenes of why he doesn’t with Susan. (It’s to Gerwig’s credit that she makes any impression at all, with her role slashed to almost nothing.)
In a gender switch on the part that won John Gielgud a richly deserved Oscar, Helen Mirren might have made it work, if Baynham and Winer had preserved the servant’s biting wit and supercilious warmth. But they don’t; where Gielgud enriched the first Arthur, Mirren is only slumming in this one.
Arthur was Steve Gordon’s first and last feature film; in November 1982, with Arthur still in release, he died of a sudden heart attack at age 44. It was a sad loss; who knows how many gems he might have gone on to make? But at least he was spared the sorry spectacle of what the next generation has done to his last and best creation.
If you’ve never seen the first Arthur, if your only frame of reference is movies like … well, like Get Him to the Greek, you might want to knock this review’s rating up a notch. Or even two, if your standards are that low.