Cliches like the headline shouldn’t be taken lightly. They should be avoided at all cost, except when they are so accurate that it would make your nose bleed. In the case of Russell Brand slurping hooch and pitching woo in the remake of Arthur, we may need to recheck the records to see if Dudley Moore died in the same hospital on the same day Brand was born.
The strength of Arthur rests solely on its actors. The sequences are more than interwoven sketch comedy, but they aren’t much more, and without the humor and absurdity inherent in the all-too-popular new character of the man child, this thing would have been as flat as if a giant magnet bed fell on it. Russell Brand is Arthur. And what Arthur is, is hilarious and heartfelt.
After his selfishness was the obstacle of Get Him to the Greek, his perpetual state of happiness-seeking in Arthur is a downright celebration. Brand as Arthur is the ubermensch of wasting money, but Brand does the unthinkable by still managing to be likable. The sole reason for that is that while his character is pure id – wandering from impulse to impulse – Arthur also doesn’t have a mean-spirited drop of blood coursing through his veins. He has a lot of alcohol coursing through them, but nothing he does or thinks is ever intentionally hurtful.
That doesn’t mean he avoids hurting people, but his sins are of thoughtlessness instead of power-tripping.
The plot is as simple as a giant man in a top hat strolling through a crowded street. Arthur gets busted for making his butler Bitterman (Luis Guzman) get dressed up as the dynamic duo and take the Batmobile out for a spin. It’s the last straw for his empire-running business mother (Geraldine James) who issues the ultimatum that he marry former fling, serious financial mind Susan (Jennifer Garner) or be cut off from the large amount of zeros in his bank account. At first he sticks to principle, but right after agreeing to stay insanely wealthy, he meets Naomi (Greta Gerwig) and complicates everything by falling in love.
If the entire film hinges on Brand being likable as a hedonist, then the romance rests on two of the women in his life. The first is Susan – and the hurdle to jump became apparent in the trailer when Brand makes a crack about his magnetic bed being the only thing in the room attracted to her. What man in his right mind wouldn’t fall for Garner, an actress that’s played the doe-eyed ingenue a ton of times? The answer turns out to be: all of them. Garner creates a character so thoroughly despicable that Arthur’s running away makes complete sense. She’s crass, unfeeling, and possibly a sociopath.
On the other end of the spectrum is Greta Gerwig, who will prove something to the mainstream audiences that the indie world learned long ago: that she is effortlessly, insanely adorable. In Arthur, she plays a tour guide without a license trying to make ends meet by sharing her passion for the city with strangers. That’s right. She makes money by being charming. It makes sense. She also has to run from the cops occasionally, which is just one more sign that she’s Arthur’s soul mate.
In truth, almost everything in this movie works because of the variety of comedic relationships with Brand right at the center. Luis Guzman is at his dimwitted, straight man best here, giving Brand a blank wall to throw joke after joke at. Gerwig embodies sweetness like a not-at-all-Manic Pixie Dream Girl who brings out the best in our manboy hero. Garner delivers this terrifying sense of the worst parts of growing up, and that puts Brand on his toes (which he absolutely needs from time to time to avoid being annoying).
And then, there’s Helen Mirren, who plays his nanny, Hobson. As if there were any doubt about Mirren’s abilities, she’s all things at all times. Strict but sweet, caring but sarcastic, softhearted but strong-willed. She creates a phenomenal character that doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. Her loving Arthur is reason enough for us to care about the sodded bastard.
If there’s trouble with the story at all, it’s purely in its structure. It plays out exactly how you’d imagine. Arthur has to juggle two women because he’s too scared to lose his money and too scared to tell Naomi a truth that might get in the way of having fun. Strangely enough, all of the formulaic moments work because they are fresh characters shoved into familiar situations. It’s when Arthur diverts from the course that it ends up getting muddled. The entire last act is a leisurely stroll to tie up a lot of loose relationship ends, and every major player gets their climactic face-time with the leading man. Not only is some of it not warranted, it kills the momentum of a dash to the finish line. This isn’t helped at all by a shoehorned segment about AA that becomes the only falsely laughable thing in the whole flick. Without that little subplot, the path would have been even clearer for a solid flourish instead of a comedy that wants to have its drama and eat it too.
Over all, the film works because the actors are incredible. Brand is constantly spitting out cleverness (and what he can do with a single cent might be the funniest bit in the whole film). Fortunately, he’s surrounded by the best of the best for this particular story, and the result is an endlessly charming movie about a perpetual boozer with more money than the bottom 10% of the income tax bracket.
The Upside: Perfect characters, a familiar story that works, a ton of comedy, and Helen Mirren taking on an Oscar-winning role that will almost assuredly not win her an Oscar.
The Downside: Some pacing issues near the end, an unnecessary jaunt into AA, and too many loose ends tied up that didn’t really need to be.
On the Side: This is the second time Helen Mirren has taken a role played by John Gielgud. The first was the role of Prospero which Mirren played in The Tempest.