By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Filmgoers respectful of the first “Arthur,” starring the late, great Dudley Moore, needn’t be afraid to laugh lest they commit sacrilege whence seeing this shiny new remake featuring Russell Brand as the title billionaire-dipsomaniac. Understandable, however, that possibility born of a reverence for the 1981 classic comedy does jog a fond memory.
I was a neophyte in the N.Y. screening rooms, amazed at my good fortune to be in the same space, even if still not conversant with, my film critic idols, when Hesh and I, who would evolve into longtime movie companions, attended a preview of the original. We knew nothing of the movie; only that it was a comedy. Then the lights went down.
Dudley Moore erupted into his raucous, drunken but loveable bad boy with the force of a comedic Jack-in-the-box. The room remained silent in what seemed like conspired defiance. But Hesh and I couldn’t help it. We soon started to titter, muffling our reaction whilst looking at each other for an explanation of the otherwise Sphinx-like reception.
Then Arthur really got rolling, a gangbusters illustration of nose-thumbing impudence, a playboy who only lived for a good time, and couldn’t care less what anyone else thought. OK, so he was a fall down drunk. Who wasn’t back then? But the room stood its stodgy ground. Our snickers grew to chortles. And finally there was no containing ourselves.
We gave into the comic epiphany. Pent-up belly-laughs were released like a suddenly deflated zeppelin. So much for appearances and demeanor. We would cackle robustly. Let them throw us out of the place. It was funny! In the movies, this is when the monocled old gent in the room finally accedes, giving consent for all to join in heartily.
I like to think it happened that way, and that we were the flint that got the bonfire of mirth started. In any case, sounder funny bones prevailed, and the rest is history…until now with the arrival of what some may see as the ignoble usurper. The syndrome is common, and often as not more a patriotic defense of one’s era than an artistic criticism.
If you live the projected three score and eighteen, you’ll see 3.2 remakes of your favorite movie, plus the silent one you didn’t even know existed until you took that film course. But I’ll commit no blasphemy. While this “Arthur” is only a shadow of the icon, it’s not a bad silhouette at that, a contemporary homage full of its very own personality and wit.
Deserving credit for having the chutzpah to tackle the sacrosanct role, Russell Brand last imparted his stoner imprint as rock star Aldous Snow in “Get Him to the Greek” (2010). So he is no stranger to treading on hallowed ground if you consider that said film is actually a variation on the Peter O’Toole-starring “My Favorite Year” (1982).
Borrowing from Moore but interjecting his unique style of audacious rebellion against whatever doesn’t tickle his spoiled fancy, this poor little rich kid can run amok with the best of them. All the N.Y. cops know him. Quickly released from jail after a night of hedonism, he bails out his fellow inmates, informing, “It wouldn’t seem fair otherwise.”
In another scene, upon hearing that there is a recession on, he unleashes the contents of an ATM in a 7-11 on a group of strangers whilst exclaiming, “Free money!” He’s a goodhearted wastrel who believes that currency should be used in the pursuit of fun. To his dowager mom’s chagrin, he has no interest in working to enlarge the family fortune.
Of course Mumsy (Geraldine James) has had sonny boy’s antics and disinterest in the accumulation of wealth up to here. She’s given him everything…but love. In patrician fashion, she’s left that chore to his nanny, Hobson, nicely exacted by Helen Mirren. The governess is his only friend. Most of the other women he knows are, well, you know.
One exception, but only by the amount of money she’s interested in, is Jennifer Garner’s Susan, the daughter of a self-made industrialist (Nick Nolte). While already rich, she’d sure like the coat of arms that comes with marrying Arthur. And mother wouldn’t mind letting her believe aristocracy rubs off if it’ll harness Arthur for the good of the dynasty.
But don’t worry. This wouldn’t be the fun-filled, modern fairy tale it is if there weren’t also a poor but sweet gal like Greta Gerwig’s perfectly cast Naomi in the mix. Naturally she supports a sick dad. I know. It’s predictable. But for those who don’t mind trading a little credibility for a lot of kismet, “Arthur” proves rich with laughs and good feelings.
“Arthur,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Jason Winer and stars Russell Brand, Helen Mirren and Greta Gerwig. Running time: 110 minutes
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