Directed by Jason Winer
Starring Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Garner
Rating: Rated PG-13 for alcohol use throughout, sexual content, language and some drug references
For someone who started her blogging career on a movie site, there are quite a few gaps in my mental movie database.
Take almost any movie from the early 1980s, for example. As a kid, we didn’t have a lot of extra money to spend on such things, and besides, would you really expect conservative parents to okay a movie night that didn’t include a Disney film? As a result, I never saw the original Arthur with British actor Dudley Moore and could go into the screening of the remake starring Russell Brand without any preconceptions. [Editor’s note: Massive spoilers, ahoy!]
The story, by now, is somewhat familiar: In order to keep the family’s considerable charitable trust from losing investors, man-child playboy Arthur Bach (Russell Brand) is told by his widowed mother that if he wants to continue to have access to the vast fortune left to him, he must marry nouveau riche heiress Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner). Meanwhile, Bach meets an unlicensed tour operator from Queens named Naomi (Greta Gerwig) who ends up being able to see past his boorish behavior, and the two fall in love. Bach doesn’t want to give up the money because it’s all he has known and it fuels his every whim. He also doesn’t want to marry someone he doesn’t care about and who frankly scares the crap out of him with her domineering ways. What is an eligible young Manhattan scion to do?
Even without knowing anything about the original, or that they made a sequel to it where Moore’s character is married to Liza Minelli’s waitress from Queens, you know that any romantic comedy is going to end with Arthur hooked up with Naomi and not Susan. It’s how the film gets there is what I’m examining in this review.
Immediately after the lovely and whimsical closing credits finished rolling, I knew I liked most of what I’d seen. Brand was charming, there were some fantastic lines of dialogue that got some great laughs in the screening audience I saw it with, and Helen Mirren as Brand’s nanny Hobson stole almost every scene that she was in.
It’s when I got home and started to think about exactly what I was confused about during the last climactic scene in the church that the whole movie fell apart. Early in the movie, we first see Jennifer Garner’s Susan standing next to Vivienne Bach (Geraldine James) at the charity dinner that Arthur misses because he’s too busy getting arrested by the cops for driving the Batmobile (Tim Burton era) into the bronze bull located near Wall Street. That’s where they first hatch the scheme to have Arthur marry her because she would provide a stabilizing influence for him and with her at the helm of the next generation of the trust, the investors would return.
The next time we see Susan, she is striding out of Vivienne’s office wearing an impeccable business suit, and laying down some expository background information which reveals that she and Arthur dated once, and then after a few months of sex, he never called her again. Shortly afterwards, as Vivienne goes over the plan with Arthur, we see magazine covers showing what an awesome woman Susan is for her equestrian accomplishments and charitable work with Habitats for Humanity.
Is it any wonder, then, that I thought that Susan was an executive with the firm who bent the rules once and dated her boss’ son? And that one of the reasons why she agreed to the plan in the first place was so that she could take control of it in a way that she never would be able to on her own? And that control and the fact that it would be a marriage of convenience is something that Susan and Vivienne already discussed?
Therefore, at the end of the movie where when Arthur calls off the wedding, Susan goes on her tirade, and Vivienne stands up for his decision, I had no earthly idea why Vivienne would have heaped so much scorn on Susan for saying her piece or why she would have suddenly decided that it would be better for Arthur to marry for love and not to keep his money. Even during the earlier scene where Hobson goes to intercede on his behalf, we never get any indication that Vivienne is starting to understand her own son or that she has never thought Susan’s intentions were anything but romantic; as such, her sudden change of heart at the wedding makes no sense whatsoever.
Otherwise, this was the perfect movie for Russell Brand to add to his filmography. Knowing now about how they chose to take this movie, he was the only person I could think of who could do this role justice. Perhaps, it’s because he is a media bad boy and is such a larger than life figure that it would be impossible to see someone else in this role. If I were his manager, though, I’d worry about him being typecast, unless that’s all he wants out of his career… and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Greta Gerwig as Naomi is cute and serviceable, but the problems I have with how they handled her character overshadow too much her actual performance. The choice of Naomi’s day job is just a little too improbable for a New Yorker, and that’s what tumbled my suspension of disbelief regarding her character. Granted, the film explains that her father receives a pension and that’s what’s helping pay for the apartment they share in Queens, but even outside of New York City, most struggling children’s book authors I know of have a spouse with a day job or have a separate steady day job themselves. Also–and this is a huge publishing nitpick on my part–most children’s book publishers prefer to hire illustrators separately from writers; this is something Naomi would have known if she’d cared to do a bit of research. (Also, the fact that Susan knew that the Bach corporation acquired the publishing firm who bought Naomi’s book? Is more ammunition for the “Susan is a Bach executive” argument.)
Despite my misunderstanding of Susan’s actual motivation, I still think Jennifer Garner made an excellent antagonist, even if she was only one by default. You could tell that’s the role they intended for her to play when she made a most unwelcome crack at Hobson which seemingly came out of the blue. She has a long way to go before she gets to the level of Bette Davis scene-chomping, but she was definitely a force to reckon with during her scenes.
Equally as forceful and deserving of her top billing was Helen Mirren in the role that fellow compatriot John Gielgud had in the original as Arthur’s most trusted companion, and Hobson’s gender swap is the most interesting innovation that director Jason Winer and screenwriter Peter Baynham brought to the remake. By choosing to emphasize Hobson’s role as Arthur’s “true” mother and contrast her way of taking care of him to Vivienne’s, it brought an interesting spice to all of their interactions. However, you never felt that Mirren was putting on a man’s trousers to play this role; it was hers from beginning to end.
Ultimately, it’s a real darn shame that these actors and others who performed well–including Nick Nolte as Susan’s father, Luis Guzman as Arthur’s valet Bitterman, and John Hodgman’s cameo as a cashier in Dylan’s Candy Bar–were stuck in such a dismal remake. As my former editor once said, remakes can be done well if they bring something new to the adaptation. All this brought to the table was an expired can of spotted dick.
Arthur is out in wide release now, but honestly, you’re probably better off watching the original which is currently streaming on Netflix.