Film of the week
Starring: Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner, Greta Gerwig
Friday 22 April 2011
Thirty years ago Dudley Moore cavorted through a feeble comedy about a drunken playboy on the loose in Manhattan. Yet in an odd twist, Arthur became a fond memory for me, it being the last movie I ever saw at The Futurist, a grand Art Deco cinema on Lime Street, Liverpool. It closed down shortly afterwards, though the place still stands, a forlorn and rotting husk. And such may be the fate of Russell Brand's film career if he's not careful, for the rehashed Arthur in which he stars is a calamity, to be watched in the mortifying discomfort of a full body cringe.
Taking on Moore's sozzled English wastrel, Brand plays Arthur as a priapic man-child with a free-spending habit. Cocooned in his Manhattan penthouse, he has all that he wants of women, cars, booze (though not drugs – this is "family entertainment") and responds to the recession-hit mood by handing out cash to strangers. There to do his bidding is nanny Helen Mirren, reprising the part of John Gielgud's butler in the original right down to the thespy hauteur and looks of disdain. How can she bear it? Money, I suppose, the motor of the plot: Arthur's mother wants to marry him off to a social-climbing ballbreaker (Jennifer Garner) and thus join two plutocratic families in one. Unwilling to defy her and be disinherited, he agrees to be married alive until he runs into a cute, kooky NY tour guide, Naomi (Greta Gerwig), who naturally loves Arthur for himself rather than his money.
Which would be great if anyone could love Arthur for himself. Sadly, the adorable hedonist the film-makers would like us to believe him is actually a narcissistic fool and a bit of a git. Perhaps US audiences are easily impressed by the spectacle of extravagant wealth; from here, his incontinent spending looks creepy, vulgar and slightly desperate. He goes to auctions and buys high-end antiques, and we get the impression that he acquires people, too, because he doesn't know how to make friends. This inadequacy should be poignant, or funny, or both, but Brand's mockney patter keeps firing blanks; the lines (Peter Baynham wrote it) tumble into dead space. Greta Gerwig, the awkward charmer of Greenberg, does the best she can, but nobody's really buying her enchantment with his look-at-me zaniness. As for Garner, she will have to search far and wide in years to come for a role more unseemly and grotesque than this.
The story doesn't even manage to make the little sense required of it. When Arthur decides to break from the family and sacrifice his millions, his attempts to get a job are meant to be hilarious, even though we realise he could just sell what he's already got and live off the proceeds. Likewise, we are invited to applaud his late bid for maturity and independence – at the end he wears a flat cap, sign of chastened downward mobility – but his babyish persona looks worryingly intact. He's traded in his nanny for a woman who writes children's books: not a girlfriend, then, just a younger nanny. Arthur was no great shakes first time around; this Brand-new version is a full-on stinker.
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