There are threads that run through films which are timeless and universal; themes that are manna to audiences of any era. These include determinism; the notion that certain things are meant to happen, a man meeting his perfect woman for example, and as an audience we expect these things to play out and for any obstacle placed in the path of this endeavour to be removed by the film’s close. That’s our pleasure. There’s the idea that the best movie characters are larger than life; not just projections in the literal sense but projections of our fantasies, healthy or otherwise.
Then there’s our moral load, the hypocritical idea that however we live our lives, we expect movies to defend a moral position, usually that of righteousness, of responsibility, so that whatever the character’s stripe, they’re rewarded or punished for the choices they make throughout the narrative. This is so ubiquitous in successful movies that when it doesn’t occur, when the Rolo Tomassi’s of the movie world endure, we label their adventures as “dark”, “realist” or “gritty”; we mark the difference, when it fact most of us are Rolo or friends of his.
The original Arthur worked because it was a fairytale for New York; a movie in which good people fell in love across the social divide and vanquished the greedy and perfidious. Audiences never tire of these vicarious victories and the new Arthur, in the taller and more erudite form of Russell Brand, takes no liberties with that formula. What has changed since 1981 however, in light of the global financial crash and our new age of austerity, is our attitude toward wealth and the gratuitously wealthy. This is not a universal theme. Audiences are units of aspiration, always, but the fantasy can only take flight when there’s hope. Too much reality bricks up the escape hatch.
The filmmakers must have known that they were taking a risk by retelling the story of a multi-millionaire, or “pampered prick” as Helen Mirren would have it, whose perpetual childhood is rooted in an ostentatious lifestyle and a flouting of the responsibilities that condemn the rest of us to terminal mediocrity. Would new found audience resentment scupper this re-telling? The Eighties were a long time ago now.
Key to mitigating against such a disaster is making Arthur as likable as possible. It’s not enough to like him actually, we have to understand him and know that this decadence is a mere patch for something less material, something we have despite our poverty; basic human nonsense like love, understanding and companionship. Dudley Moore cut a good natured and tragic figure; a big hearted soak that drank to dilute boredom. Brand’s a harder sell, not least because he comes to the role frontloaded with audience prejudices relating to his hedonist lifestyle and reputation for self-regard. The good news for this remake is that Peter Bayham’s warm and witty rewrite of the original serves the parts of Brand that are the most palatable – the erudition, the buried intelligence, the sharp sense of humour and crucially, the playfulness; substituting the egocentrism for innocence. It’s a makeover that affords Brand the opportunity to play a toned down version of himself; a version with vices that you can show to the kids, and consequently he’s endearing and vulnerable; he holds the movie together.
I think it unlikely that Arthur (2011) will be a breakthrough hit for Brand as it was for Moore, but then the new man is a more complicated beast and as he once observed, ‘complicated people are tricky, look at Hitler’ ; tricky for audiences too. The turn does him no harm, however, and he’s bolstered by Greta Gerwig in the Liza Minelli role, composed of just the right proportions of sweetness and kook to make the romance upon which the story turns, work. Watching Helen Mirren as Hobson makes one miss Gielgud’s stoicism, and his ability to season propriety with waspishness. She’s no cheap knock off, but the original had a disciplinary zeal, with the butler slapping around the little man with a cry of “you spoilt little bastard”, here replaced with maternal protectiveness.
The new film is reverent to the plot of the old to a beat, so there are few surprises for those with memories. Bayham’s chief revisions are pushing the possibilities of Arthur’s train set approach to wealth a little further and stuffing witticisms into Brand’s mouth. Bach Mark II has a bed that’s repelled from the ground with magnets and once owned a giraffe that choked on its monocle. Brand’s brain was wired to deliver lines like, “it’s not what it looks like, unless it looks like a cat raping a horse”, and that playful use of language is predominant throughout.
The question that bedevils Arthur is why does it exist at all? Given the deference shown to Steve Gordon’s original, there seems to be little point in resurrecting the little shit. Some will enjoy the irony that they’re watching a movie that’s both a cynical commercial exercise and a morality tale about eschewing greed for spiritual growth, but if you’re not wedded to Dud’s trust fund drunk, there’s no reason not to enjoy this sweet and affectionate retread.
Arthur is released in the U.K. on April 22nd.