Brand New 'Arthur'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Relatively early on into this remake of the well-loved 1981 comedy starring Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli, the tough and intimidating and possibly nuts would-be father-in-law of the wealthy drunkard title character is extolling the virtues of his high-profile businesswoman daughter. "She once bought a crack house and turned it into a condo," he brags. "That's funny; I once did the exact opposite," demurs Arthur, in that slightly fake-deferential but unmistakably barbed delivery that's a specialty of the performer playing him this time around, the British comic Russell Brand.
If that exchange -- which, to my mind, is enhanced by the fact that an ultra-gruff Nick Nolte (looking healthier than he has in some time, bless him) is playing the prospective father-in-law -- strikes you as funny -- and I'll admit right now that it did, as it happens, make me laugh, and not just a little bit, so there you have it -- well, then you're likely to have an OK or better time with "Arthur." Granted, this critic is not one of the odd people out there who believes that remaking "Arthur," the definitively fractured (or one should say "fixed") fairy tale of a drunk millionaire who has to choose (but not really!) between money and love, constitutes some form of cinematic sacrilege. Having experienced the original in its initial theatrical run 30 years ago, and having considered said original a crock with a lot of good one-liners and some excellent bravura comedic performances (particularly, of course, from Moore and from John Gielgud, who seemed to particularly relish the more not-quite-Shakespearean lines of dialogue with which writer-director Steve Gordon furnished him), I wasn't expecting too much more from this than another crock with good one-liners and so on.
Brand definitely carries the first hour with his free-associative riffing and childlike energy, making the irresponsible rich playboy a more-than-acceptable mercurial object. His various foils -- Luis Guzman as an amiable but almost constantly befuddled butler, Helen Mirren doing stiff-upper-lip wisecracks and compassion in a gender-reversed version of the Gielgud role, Jennifer Garner as the manic man trap who wants to snare Arthur in a marriage -- give about as good as they get. And Greta Gerwig, in the role originated by Minnelli, that of the nice-but-poor girl from the outer boroughs who captures Arthur's childlike heart, is both magnetic and charmingly natural.
Or so I thought. I am compelled to report that during the screening I attended, I was one of the very few members of the press who enjoyed himself. Waiting in line for the restroom afterward, I heard a couple of sourpuss critics making "go back to mumblecore" and "next Parker Posey, maybe" remarks, which hurt my feelings, for some reason. "What's wrong with you pasty-faced joy-killers?" I wanted to exclaim. "Doncha like romantic comedy?"
Still, it has to be said that in the picture's second half things get bogged down in unnecessarily drawn-out plot complications (seems to happen a lot these days, I've gotta say), which, among other things, cause both the comic energy and the disarming charm of the performers to lose more than a bit of steam. But the cinematography (by Uta Briesewitz) remains bright and shiny, the New York locations are lovingly treated, and the old Christopher Cross song is semi-enticingly evoked but never completely reprised by Theodore Shapiro's score. I know what you're waiting for me to say, so I'll just say it: As remakes go, I guess this is the best that they could do. Oh!
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.