“Why?” will echo through your head if you’re a fan of the 1981 “Arthur” starring Dudley Moore as you watch this useless remake. The original won a shiny pair of Oscars and is considered a classic, but apparently Warner Bros. thought it needed to be remade for contemporary audiences. But the larger philosophical question soon fades in favor of a strictly personal one: “Why me?” Though it has fleeting funny moments, this Russell Brand vehicle is a sputtering Pinto that surprises more when it runs well than when it lurches to a stop.
When we first meet Brand's Arthur Bach, he is suiting up for an unknown mission, donning a batsuit and making an arsenal out of alcohol. Abetted by his loyal chauffeur Bitterman (Luis Guzman) as Robin, Arthur’s Batman takes his Batmobile through the streets of New York and promptly crashes it into a landmark. He’s an embarrassment to his CEO mother Vivienne (Geraldine James) and her company, but Arthur is content to waste his time and his share of the company’s fortune on tanks of Maker's Mark and hookers. Only his loyal nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren, taking over for the role John Gielgud originated in the 1981 film) can put up with him, and even she has her limits. “He’s merely shaped like an adult,” she explains with a withering glance.
Arthur needs to grow up--and fast--and Vivienne gives him an ultimatum: marry bitchy Bach executive Susan Johnson (a miscast Jennifer Garner) or lose his claim on the family’s $950 million. Greed wins out, but then Arthur meets wannabe tour guide Naomi (Greta Gerwig) and is instantly smitten. He tries to wiggle out of his engagement, but that exclusively cinematic of problems--love or money--plagues him as he contemplates a life without love or without his magnetic bed, Fifth Avenue penthouse and phone booth fish tanks.
First-time feature director Jason Winer has made a name for himself with episodes of the critically beloved “Modern Family,” but whatever style he has doesn’t translate well to film. The ABC sitcom is all about talent and timing, and “Arthur” has neither. What’s especially odd about this leap is that while “Modern Family” is consistently one of the best, funniest shows on television, it’s never been an especially cinematic one, and promoting one of its main directors to the big screen seems premature at best and idiotic at worst. We don’t expect an auteur’s edge to most studio comedies (part of what made this week’s “Your Highness” such a pleasant surprise), but “Arthur” is more blandly shot and edited than most CBS comedies.
As Brand slurs his way through the film, any residual charm from “Get Him to the Greek” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” slowly evaporates. Not only can we not understand why Naomi would want to be with him, but we can’t understand whatever made casting directors and audiences like Brand in the first place. He’s annoying in a way that a supporting character can get away with, but the titular role can’t afford to be. “Arthur” is almost two hours long, and it feels every second of it.
However, there are times when you find yourself laughing against your better judgment. Brand’s best lines are ones he throws out with seemingly little effort, though it’s sad that his funniest moment might simply be the way he says “Evander” when he spars against the former boxing champ. Mirren’s fun to watch and even is a good enough actress to seem as though she’s actually having fun herself.
We’re fans of Gerwig and happy to see her playing a big role in a studio film, but what seemed quirky and authentic in other films seems too much like the stock manic pixie dream girl here--though likely cheaper than Zooey Deschanel--and one stuck saying some awful lines. The charm that she’s brought to other parts big and small is lost here. We still have hopes that she’ll find a project--big or small--that suits her talents, but this isn’t it.
“Arthur” tries to make a joke out of its protagonist’s drinking problem, but it turns surprisingly sweet and sappy to compensate, often veering more toward romance than straight comedy, despite its marketing. We even got a little verklempt at one of its predictable plotlines, but we’re even more ashamed of that than when giggles escaped us. [D+]