Friday, April 15, 2011

Arthur's Reign

For as long as I can remember, my father has maintained this opinion regarding film remakes: the original is always better. Just about anyone can finger dozens of films that prove this, from Psycho to Planet of the Apes, The Wicker Flight of the Phoenix, Godzilla to Poseidon. It's far too mundane pointing out these obvious atrocities however, with such obviousness do they make themselves. It's true that Hollywood too often gets lazy when it comes to these titles, thinking all that's needed to appeal to both an existing audience and a young, fresh one is a tried and true story with name-brand stars and CGI. And yet for all the times my father was automatically right, I've seen several films that throw his timeless theory out into the streets. True Grit. The Ring. 3:10 to Yuma. Dawn of the Dead. The Thing. Many people don't know it, but Martin Scorcese's Oscar-winning The Departed was actually a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Internal Affairs. When done right, a remake might be even better than the original, even if the chances of that are fairly remote. And so that brings me to this day's review. Arthur is a remake of the 1981 film that starred Dudley Moore as spoiled, drunken billionaire who learns the true values of life and love. Arthur was nominated for four Oscars, won two, and is to this day considered among the best comedies of all time. Though a remake featuring British comedian Russell Brand would at first seem to land nowhere close to the level of quality put forth by the original, there was still some chance that the film might actually be pretty good, most notably in the castings of Helen Mirren and Jennifer Garner to back up Brand. And so I chose it this past weekend over Your Highness and Soul Surfer, the best of the rest from last week's new releases (of course having already seen the amazing Hanna), hoping for the best.

...And this is largely how Brand won his Arthur role...
Arthur (Brand) is a the fun-loving heir to the Bach mogul empire who finds himself in a fix when his disruptive and media-drawing escapades get him in deep water with his estate, most notably his mother (Geraldine James), who has never paid much attention to him and placed him in the care of Hobson (Mirren), his nanny since childhood. Embarrassed by his antics and knowing the distrust others place on the future of her company thanks to them, threatens to cut off his inheritance if he doesn't stop his childish ways. To that end, she arranges his marriage to Susan Johnson (Garner), a smart businesswoman in her own right who has interest in Arthur, though he really can't stand her. Instead, he randomly falls for tour guide/children's book author Naomi (Greta Gerwig), and the two begin a wonderful friendship. Soon, Arthur must choose whether to accept the marriage and with it his inheritance, or risk loving Naomi in poverty.

...And then he convinced Helen Mirren the film would be a good idea...

Every film director has to start somewhere, and this time it was Jason Winer's turn to make a dreadful debut. Winer comes in as one of TV's better talents, probably best known as one of the directors of the Emmy-winning series Modern Family. I don't watch the show regularly, but every time I do I can't help but love it. The show often weaves hilarity with heart, not an easy thing to do on a regular basis. Unfortunately, what works for a half-hour comedy show doesn't seem to work itself out over a nearly two-hour film. To be frank, Arthur is not humorous. All the funny stuff (if you can call it that) appears in the trailers or commercials you've already seen, and there's not one bit apart that seems even slightly entertaining. Winer shares in some of the blame, but even devoted Brand enthusiasts would be stretched to find anything to latch onto, unless you were as drunk as the the eponymous hero of the film while watching. With the exception of a few instances, there's remarkably little to laugh at, and Arthur often tries to establish itself as a serious narrative, despite featuring Brand on its poster.

You can just see Garner plotting her prison break
Perhaps the film's biggest obstacle is that in this day and age, billionaires just aren't as likable as they used to be. Long ago were the days of Little Orphan Annie and other stories in which rich folk were portrayed as benevolent and whimsical, almost like they were too good to be true. Unfortunately, in recent years we as a nation have been witness to Bernie Madoff and multiple other high-profile magnates, many who made their money by cheating the underclasses out of hard-earned dough. Even lesser-known moguls worldwide are often given lesser sentences for the heinous crimes they commit, further exacerbating the problem. Working class people have become so cynical that they simply don't trust the ruling classes, and so asking them to see a film featuring one, even a supposedly fun one like Arthur Bach, is as tough a sell as you can make.

Gerwig unveils her newest invention: the smoking children's book
To that end it's difficult to tell if Brand's performance is the worst I've seen this year or actually pretty good. Playing to the hilt the "spoiled rich boy" image, he really doesn't do anything differently than you've seen before, even in 2010's Shakespeare adaptation The Tempest. Brand's strength is not in acting; he's a comedian, and from what some have told me, a damned good one. He's certainly got a memorable image, and a public persona that demands attention. All the roles he's played up to this point have capitalized on that and only that aspect of his celebrity, and therefore barely qualify as characters and more as caricatures of the actor involved. Arthur is to a degree likable, but not so much that you can understand the attraction he presents to not one but two female leads. Helen Mirren is possibly the standout of the crowd, not surprising to anyone who's seen her perform. Taking a gender-bender with the role that netted actor John Gielgud an Academy Award in the original film, Mirren is amusing and inspiring, even when she's not actually in the scene. Sure, it's a step down, but she's still Helen freakin' Mirren! Yet it's Greta Gerwig with whom I found myself smiling more when the young actress was on screen. As the young, smart Naomi, Gerwig plays to the blue collars in the audience, working wonders in the process. She also has great scenes with Brand, and those bits with the two together are among the title's best. I was actually disappointed with Jennifer Garner. The actress, whose disappointing career showed a much higher ceiling with her guest-starring role in 2007's Juno, is pure movie villain through and through. Using the arranged marriage as a stepping stone to fame and fortune, Garner's character is so unlikable to the audience that it's implausible that she could at all be appealing to her fellow characters. Minor roles by Geraldine James (in another gender-swap), Luis Guzman and Nick Nolte are fine enough, but nothing to write home about.

Arthur's opening night audience
Arthur might have had the potential to be among the year's biggest surprises, but will end the year struggling to not be among its worst films. Failing to crack the Top 10 right now is not the kiss of death it was in March, but to do so on such an epic scale is disappointing to say the least. I definitely would not recommend it to you, fair readers, as while this month would seem to be a weak one for film releases overall, that's still not excuse enough to spend your money on this turd. If you have to see one movie this weekend in the theaters, I can name a dozen movies off the top of my head, including Hanna, Win Win, The Adjustment Bureau, Jane Eyre and Insidious. There's simply no reason to let Arthur get anywhere near that list.

No comments: