First off, let’s establish the fact that I am not a huge fan of the original Arthur from 1981, which has—for some reason—come to be viewed as a “classic” (a term that gets more elastic all the time). I’m sure I’ll be branded as being too PC, but the comic drunk was a tired schtick even 30 years ago. By rights, it ought to have gone out with comic stuttering, but Dudley Moore made it more-or-less palatable, mostly due to his innately likable screen image. (Moore may have hated being called “Cuddly Dudley,” but it was more true than not.)
The brilliance of the first Arthur lay in teaming Moore with the acid humor of John Gielgud—giving Moore something of the balance he had as part of his earlier work Peter Cook. The attempt at scoring similar points in the new version by pairing Russell Brand and Helen Mirren just isn’t the same. Brand isn’t that likable, and Mirren isn’t in the Gielgud league of sarcasm—and this comes from a huge admirer of Helen Mirren. The best that can be said is that the results are pleasant—no, not even that. They’re not unpleasant, and that’s not the same thing. The problem is that Mirren is required to do all the heavy lifting. She has to be both the acid-tongued voice of reason and the humanizing element, and it’s too much.
Story-wise the new Arthur is pretty much the same as the old Arthur, with requisite updatings (like making Arthur a billionaire) and an added layer of PG-13 level raunch. However, it remains the story of a genial drunken playboy who has the bad luck to fall in love with a “commoner” at the same time he’s being forced into a loveless marriage in order to retain his inheritance. That’s about it, and the outcome is hardly surprising in either case because both play by the rules of the romantic comedy—the only significant difference is the Mirren sub-plot. The changes are minimal, and rarely for the better. Jennifer Garner’s role as Susan, the unwanted fiancee, has been padded to no benefit, while the alteration of her father from a menace into Nick Nolte’s borderline psychotic is simply strange.
The real problem, however, is Russell Brand as Arthur. It’s not that he lacks Moore’s charisma so much as it is that his approach to the whole thing—especially that high-pitched whine that makes you wonder when his voice is going to change—rarely feels authentic. He’s constantly trying too hard and it shows at every turn. What we end up with is a character we’re supposed to like and only rarely do. Even then, we mostly like him because Mirren’s Hobson and working-class love interest Naomi (Greta Gerwig) do, and because his mother, his fiancee and his prospective father-in-law are not likable. It rarely has anything to do with Arthur himself.
As a movie, this Arthur is really no better and no worse than the original. Both are competently directed, but no more than that. The thing is that the new Arthur lacks those things that Moore and Gielgud brought to the original. And since those were the things that most mattered, this remake feels particularly ill-advised. Rated PG-13 for alcohol use throughout, sexual content, language and some drug references.