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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Russell Brand and Helen Mirren spending lots of money in Arthur.

2.5 Stars

I went into Arthur expecting the worst. The film's trailers were universally awful, and my general antipathy toward sequels left me feeling nervous. The original Arthur, a 1981 romantic comedy starring Dudley Moore, is a delightful little romp. But Russell Brand just didn't seem like he belonged in this world. And he doesn't, but thankfully, he tones down some of his more outrageous antics. He channels Moore, rather than trying to one-up him. And that makes for a surprisingly pleasant film. It's certainly not perfect, and many of the gags fall flat. But as far as comedy remakes go, this one's not half bad.

Brand plays our titular hero, a billionaire playboy who's drunk more than sober and sleeps with anything that walks. When his antics begin threatening his mother's business, she gives her son an ultimatum: Marry Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), a straight and narrow shark who's capable of managing a company and keeping Arthur in line, or lose every cent of your inheritance. Arthur delivers a very half-hearted proposal the following day, realizing there's no way he could survive without his money, but everything he thinks he knows is thrown for a loop when he meets a charmingly off-beat tour guide named Naomi (Greta Gerwig). Arthur starts seeing her behind Susan's back and quickly falls in love. Arthur's incorrigible nanny, Hobson (Helen Mirren), thinks his behavior is inexcusable, but he can't muster up the courage to come clean to Naomi, despite Susan's psychotic behavior and a rapidly approaching wedding date.

The best remakes take the heart and soul of the original and tweak them just enough to make them feel new and necessary. Arthur doesn't quite pull that off. It definitely feels new: Arthur's expensive toys include a floating magnetic bed, solid gold binoculars, and a Batmobile. And Hobson's gender change (the character was played by British legend John Gielgud, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role) is a surprise that actually gives the film a little more depth. I'm still not sure it's necessary, though. The original isn't ancient history or anything. It came out just 30 years ago. The filmmakers even borrowed many of the same jokes, some of which weren't that funny the first time around.

As far as the comedy itself goes, the funniest moments were the more subtle gags. It was funny to see Katy Perry's name pop up in Arthur's phone book. And the celebrity look-a-likes he spots from out his penthouse window were hilarious. Other moments, like Arthur's constant need to be in his underwear, fail to hit the mark and add to the already too long running time.

As a romance, however, Arthur works. Brand and Gerwig are surprisingly sweet as a couple. Their first date is magical, and Gerwig's character is immensely likeable. The two aren't totally successful during the film's more dramatic scenes, but they share a natural chemistry that makes us really root for them.

The standout in the cast, unsurprisingly, is Helen Mirren. Hobson pretends to have a heart of steel, though deep down she truly cares for Arthur. Mirren handles Hobson's wickedly dark sense of humor brilliantly, delivering every line with an ice-cold stare. But it's in the warm moments she shares with Arthur that we really appreciate the character and the performance.

Substitute some more of the Hobson-esque humor for the over-the-top stuff and Arthur could have been one of the best comedies of the year. As it is, however, it's a little too hit-and-miss to whole-heartedly recommend. But those looking for two hours of harmless, mindless fun could do a lot worse. Despite my original trepidations, I have to admit: Arthur really isn't that bad.


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