In all fairness there shouldn’t be any problem in Hollywood opting to remake Arthur. It’s one of those films that remains memorable for isolated aspects - John Gielgud’s Oscar-winning turn, Christopher Cross’ MOR hit of a theme tune - as opposed to its actual quality. It’s by no means bad; indeed, when placed against Dudley Moore’s other starring vehicles of the period, it’s easily the best. Moreover, it’s undoubtedly tragic that writer-director Steve Gordon died so young (of a heart attack, aged 44) having made just this one feature. Yet Arthur isn’t a classic, merely a piece of Hollywood gloss that remains entertaining, nothing more and nothing less. In fact, if a remake were to provide much the same - simple but engaging entertainment with a few laughs - then I’m sure we’d come away satisfied. Except this 21st century Arthur decides not to do that.
On paper this new Arthur reads much the same as the old Arthur. He’s the sole heir to a massive fortune, but also behaves like a massive child. His wealth is there to be squandered, principally on booze and partying, which keeps him in the newspapers and doesn’t sit too well with potential investors in the family business. Thus a plan is hit upon: Arthur will marry a woman of his mother’s choosing or be cut out of the family fortune. This being a romantic comedy, such arrangements can only complicate the fact that Arthur is genuinely falling in love, and not with someone of whom mother or the shareholders will approve. And so there are hurdles to cross, lessons to be learnt, hugs to be hugged and an eventual happy ending; like I said, merely a piece of Hollywood gloss.
Of course, what’s most obviously changed with this Arthur is that he is now played by Russell Brand, an actor in his early thirties, as opposed to Dudley Moore who was approach fifty at the time of the original. With this more youthful lead comes a more childish sense of humour to the set-pieces (the film opens with Brand and chauffeur Luis Guzmán causing havoc in a replica Batmobile) and a hipster taste in women, as evinced by Greta Gerwig (aka “the Meryl Streep of Mumblecore”) occupying the Liza Minnelli role. The role of the fiancée is much the same in both versions, with Jennifer Garner taking over from Jill Eikenberry, as is that of Hobson, Arthur’s valet. Except here a bit of gender switching has taken place and Hobson now becomes a nanny and is played by Helen Mirren rather than Gielgud. Although, in truth, the difference is barely discernible: in both cases we have a much respected British actor lending some class to proceedings (and Mirren is the classiest we currently have - in fact there’s a notable absence of male actors to compare to Sir John, or Sir Ralph or Sir Laurence for that matter) and stealing all the best gags for themselves. And in both cases this element of class is also arguably much needed given the general tone elsewhere.
In other words it’s really only the presence of Brand which alters this particular Arthur and as such it’s on Brand’s shoulders that the entire film rests. He is, essentially, playing a version of himself: retaining the English accent as a womaniser who cannot keep himself out of the tabloids, not that he tries particularly hard. If you have a dislike for Brand then you’ll no doubt have a dislike for Arthur. Yet this being a Hollywood production they’ve also ironed out some of Brand’s kinks meaning the dialogue isn’t quite so risqué as we find during his stand-up performances and neither is his the overall persona. The hair is a little tidier, the face is clean shaven and the tight trousers have been replaced by ill-fitting suits to play up the man-child angle. Basically, they’ve neutered Brand without quite scrubbing him clean. It’s still him albeit in family friendlier form.
The motivation - apart from securing a box office friendly rating from the censor - is to make Brand an acceptable romantic lead, perhaps even into an acceptable celebrity. Here the drinking and the partying is presented as merely a bit of fun with no real consequences because, underneath it all, Arthur is an eternal innocent with nothing but sentimental thoughts of romance occupying his mind. It’s a sign of the film’s taste for inconsistencies which also involve having Nick Nolte playing Garner’s father (a bizarre bit of casting given his own highly publicised issues with drink and drug abuse) and Brand maintaining his verbose way with words yet also incredibly uneducated whenever the plot demands it. Perhaps most surprising is that this all comes from the pen (or word processor) or Peter Baynham, one-time writer on The Day Today and its Alan Partridge-related spin-offs not to mention Chris Morris’ Brass Eye and Jam. Anyone expecting sly subversion is going to come away sorely disappointed. And it’s not as though he’s had little experience writing for the big screen as credits on the Borat and Brüno movies testify. Yet just like Brand, Baynham is reduced to just another tool working on a piece of production line Hollywood gloss. Which is all Arthur is.
Arthur is gaining a release in the UK as a ‘triple play’ edition containing Blu-ray, DVD and digital copy. The film itself is presented in a ratio of 1.78:1 and comes with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (backed up with a number of foreign language alternates and/or subtitles - see sidebar for full details). The presentation is as we should expect from a new release of a new production: pristine print, excellent clarity and detail and colours that seemingly reflect the original intentions. (In this case the reds and blues look as though they’ve been pushed somewhat in post-production, although there’s no reason to doubt that this was not fully intentional.) In other words, no problems to speak of in this department. However, this is very much an extras-lite release with the additions consisting of a brief featurette in which director Jason Winer points out the amount of improvisation that occurred when the cameras were rolling (cue plenty of footage of Brand ad lobbing), a gag reel that lasts just over a minute and a collection of deleted/extended scenes which again rely heavily on Brand not sticking to the script. No grand revelations, no insights, no need to watch the once, let alone on repeated occasions.