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Friday, April 22, 2011


Willy Wonka's party days

There are moments of genuine comedic genius in this updated remix of 1981's Arthur, starring Dudley Moore, Liza Minelli, and John Gielgud. Here, Russell Brand portrays our titular loafer in wildly expensive loafers, while Helen Mirren takes Gielgud's spot as his live-in nanny Hobson. Greta Gerwig, affable and luminous as ever, takes over for Liza Minelli as Arthur's love interest/savior. He drinks more than anyone should, to a debilitating degree, and every time he steps out of his house, it's a party. Drinks are on him, of course. Most remakes today have nothing to offer audiences, and do nothing to improve upon or rethink the original films. Admittedly, this version of the popular Moore film (for which he was Oscar nominated, and Gielgud won) doesn't do much to rethink the original, but... the improvement is there. In the 81 film, Arthur's alcoholism isn't treated with the same touch (it's merely a plot point, it feels) and Brand's performance here has more heart than most things Dudley Moore did. Both are fine films, and this one certainly won't see the Oscars, but that doesn't stop it from being a warm, and abstractly hilarious afternoon at the movies.

More after the cut--

I've said it before and I'll say it again with confidence - Russell Brand is an excellent actor. More important than being funny, he's lovable. There's a certain heartwarming quality to his humor, even when vile, so that you can't help but want to hug him when you should want to slap him. That's an important quality for Arthur Bach - a man with about a billion dollars and a billion less brain cells - to have. Matched with Helen Mirren's gift for dry wit and being so damn lovably herself, it's easy to find why this movie works. On one hand, the film under-uses just about everyone except Brand - almost like it's a vehicle for his comedic riffing. It isn't as balanced as Get Him to the Greek. But, everyone gets their fair share of screentime, and no one is forced. That's probably the best thing about this over-the-top film - nothing feels like it isn't natural. We live in Arthur's billion dollar world, and what we see is a normal day for him. 

What keeps that from being too much to believe is the concept that Arthur is abstract - he's a metaphor for overspending and overindulgence, and the entire film is based on the theory that all people stuck in this situation need is a little bit of love and acceptance to overcome their problems. That's all any of us need. And that's why the film works as it does. That's why watching Brand dress up as Abraham Lincoln and give a penny to a police office as a  form of ID works. We can't scoff at that because it's unrealistic. Everything here is unrealistic. It's a grounded fantasy, the purest form of escapism and camp. Though, when the film needs to tone it down and be serious, it does. To almost shattering effect. There's a scene where Arthur attends an AA meeting and is forced to come down to his staggeringly unreal reality, and it's sad. I was reminded of his dramatic scenes in Get Him to the Greek, another film where he deals with substance abuse in a grounded fantasy world, and how much it hurt to watch him go through those things. He's a talented actor.

Arthur hasn't earned his fortune. He's an heir to a large printing company, currently ran by his mother Vivienne (Geraldine James). He's looked after by Hobson, and wants to live his life in the moment, and that moment to its fullest. He meets a tour guide named Naomi (the wonderful Greta Gerwig) and falls in love. All's well that ends well, except that because he's an embarrassment to his family, his mother demands he marries Susan (played with strict effort by Jennifer Garner) or he's cut off from the money. And without that money, he can't afford his drinking. And he hasn't ever had to stand on his own two legs before, so the conflict is set. 

Arthur as a film is most definitely not highbrow comedy. But, to be fair, neither was the original. It's all about goofy fun, with a bit of serious metaphor thrown in. Greta Gerwig grounds the film with the heart some people might miss - she's lovable when Arthur isn't, and fair to him when no one else is. Of course, that comes with the character. What makes the performance great is her commitment to a seemingly unbelievable character. Some of the actors are just there to have fun (Nick Nolte, gruff as hell as Susan's father, and Luis Guzman as Arthur's driver - and sometimes Robin - Bitterman), but she's there to work. And work she does. She's excellent. As is Jennifer Garner, who hasn't gotten enough credit with her performance. She shone brightly with soul in Juno, and in this film she's pretty much the most vile kind of person, but fun to watch. A great villain. The film has talented actors doing what they do best - act. Everyone's at the top of their game playing people who couldn't be farther from the top of theirs.