Back in 1981 we all got a little lost between the moon and New York City as Dudley Moore played the spoiled and perpetually drunk title character in the surprise hit Arthur. He was in love with Liza Minnelli, but his rich family had plans for the socialite played by Jill Eikenberry. Arthur’s only real friend was the guy who was paid to be there for him, but nevertheless had a soft spot for him. That was butler Hobson, played by Sir John Gielgud. It was a quirky little romantic comedy that turned out to have legs. Moore would reprise the role in the sequel Arthur 2: On The Rocks which was as much a flop as the original was a success. Moore died nearly a decade ago, and most of us had pretty much forgotten the classic and moved on to other things.
Now along comes Russell Brand, who knows more than a little bit about being an out-of-control drunk. His successful attempt to turn his own life around before it careened off a cliff might have made him the perfect fit to play the character in this 2011 remake. Of course, that’s not really what makes him such a wonderful choice. Brand infused enough of his wit and clever improvisation to make this a far funnier version. Moore might have certainly been a more believable and charming drunk. But Brand is a much more entertaining one. And that wasn’t the only clever casting to be found here. More on that later.
The film pretty much follows the general idea of the original movie. Arthur (Brand) is still the irresponsible wealthy drunk who never had to grow up. He’s even more immature here with better toys than Dudley Moore’s character ever had. He drives around in an authentic Batmobile and sleeps on a very cool magnetic floating bed. Mother Vivienne (James) decides that it is time for Arthur to settle down, and she thinks that Susan (Garner) is just the one to do it. Arthur is given a rather sobering ultimatum. He marries Susan or he gets cut off from the family fortune of a billion dollars, give or take a million here or there. He agrees, but can’t help the feelings he’s developed for Naomi (Gerwig) who is far from high society. Then there’s Susan’s father played by Nick Nolte, who uses a table saw to get Arthur’s attention and warning not to mess this up. If you’ve seen the original film, you pretty much know how this is all going to end. This version maintains all of the important beats of the 1981 movie.
In one of the most dramatic departures from the first film, Hobson is now a woman, played wonderfully by Helen Mirren. While it’s dangerous to play with such dynamics, I think it was the best thing about the film. With an elder woman, the relationship is so much more charming. Hobson is the mother Vivienne can never be and likely the only person in his life who ever truly loved him. The chemistry here is quite phenomenal and pretty much drives the picture forward. You could take away the romantic entanglements and you’d still have a pretty entertaining film because of this rather perfect bit of casting. Jennifer Garner is a little rough here, I have to admit. She’s much better when she has more exciting things to do, and she appears to be out of her element most of the time here. She strikes me as the only member of the cast not having any fun. Luis Guzman is terribly underused as Arthur’s diver Bitterman. He’s in a lot of the deleted material, and the movie could have used more of their dynamic. Finally, Greta Gerwig isn’t going to have the film presence of Minnelli, and thankfully, she doesn’t really try. She’s charming enough but doesn’t share strong enough chemistry with Brand, who appears to upstage her entirely too often.
The film is the first for director Jason Winer, and it might be possible that the best decision he made was to stay out of the way. The extras confirmed my immediate suspicion that the majority of the film is improv.
I’m going to commit hearsay for many of you out there when I say that I was never really a fan of the original film. It’s one of my wife’s favorites, however. We saw it twice now together and I think we were both surprised. I found that I enjoyed this movie quite a bit and she found the same, coupled with a tremendous fear going in that they were going to muck up something she considered special. That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t go over the top at times, and Brand can get tiresome at others. It’s not a great film and unlikely to have the staying power of the first movie. Different times, you see. It’s worth a strong rental.
Arthur is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 18 mbps. The low bit-rate results in some compression issues that take away from the high-definition image presentation. The picture is certainly sharp enough, and the colors are often bright and glossy. But, there isn’t a ton of detail or texture to be found here. I felt like I was looking at images out of a magazine. Black levels are mundane and terribly average. It’s almost as if the transfer is there to dazzle you with the pretty new shiny coat to distract you from its lack of something else.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is pretty much like most comedy films today. Most of the work is done by your dialog speaker and a bit of an assist from the mains. There is little in the way of surround work here, and the film isn’t terribly immersive. Your sub handles the occasional booming pratfall well enough, but like the image it fills without really satisfying.
All of the extras are really ways to incorporate the ton of additional footage the improv manner of the movie necessitates. It’s all in HD.
Arthur Unsupervised: (11:17) This is really a collection of Brand’s many adlibs.
Additional Footage: (10:21) There are 7 deleted scenes but no individual selection.
Gag Reel: (1:22)
Here’s the thing about the Arthur remake. The movie absolutely underperformed at the box office, never even recapturing the modest $40 million budget. It’s the risk you take when you mess with someone’s sacred material. But here’s the truth and nothing but the truth about this movie. It doesn’t hold up to repeated viewings, so it’s not going to be strong presence on your Blu-ray shelf. But, this movie is better than the box office indicates, and it’s certainly better than you’ve heard it is. Give it a try. “Don’t worry. It won’t take long; then we can watch cartoons.”