By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
So many things are slightly wrong with the remake of Arthur that little feels right, and Christopher Cross' original theme song inspires the key question for everyone involved:
Is this really the best that you can do?
Perhaps it is, since Dudley Moore is dead and we're left with Russell Brand to assume the role of playboy souse Arthur Bach, shifting the tone from screwball wit to merely screwy.
Brand is amusing, in a nutty Get Him to the Greek sort of way, while Moore delivered one of the funniest performances ever, with each slurred word and drunken bumble precisely measured. Brand simply plugs in his public persona as a woozy libertine, convinced that typecasting is enough. For his fans, it may be. For Moore's it isn't.
Director Jason Winer and screenwriter Peter Baynham have the unenviable task of adapting the late Steve Gordon's triumph for a new generation that generally doesn't view alcoholism as comedy material. So they make Arthur less of a lush than a winsome hedonist, knocking back a few drinks and letting someone else drive. Since pop culture references are punch lines nowadays, the cars are expensive toys like the Batmobile and Scooby-Doo's mystery van.
Unlike Moore's Arthur, all the tippling and trappings aren't portrayed as misguided lunges for happiness but as the id we'd all indulge with this kind of bankroll. That's Brand's style and audience. The genius of the original was Moore's tightrope act between arrested development and entitled boorishness. You could love or pity his excesses, but you still laughed.
As before, Arthur is close to being disowned by his family. An arranged marriage to someone he doesn't like and will change him is his only way to remain wealthy. Then Arthur falls in love with a wonderful but poor woman and must decide whether money can truly buy happiness, and whether life outside the bottle is worth living.
Brand's take on the role is alternately silly and sympathetic; even the fiancee (Jennifer Garner) he wishes to dump deserves it this time around. He wants to be a better man at love's first sight while Moore's Arthur would drunkenly demand a second and third opinion. When Arthur Bach visits an AA meeting and gets a job involving a gummy bear costume you know the cocktail party's over.
Winer and Baynham's timidity extends to other characters in Arthur's wobbly orbit. Helen Mirren is perfectly cast as Arthur's nanny — a gender switch from John Gielgud's Oscar-winning butler — but the script makes her less of a prickly, erudite conscience than a nagging mom. Liza Minnelli's gawky quirks are missed, compared to the placid perfection of Greta Gerwig's love interest.
The new, unimproved Arthur may satisfy viewers who haven't seen the 1981 version. Maybe it will encourage them to add Gordon's movie to their Netflix queue, to understand why the remake was destined to disappoint.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.