The most hysterical thing about the new Arthur (as opposed to the old Arthur, the 1981 movie starring Dudley Moore) is the instant wave of hatred it has drawn from the nation’s 10 million movie reviewers. Their objections are several. Many appear to feel that the new film sullies the memory of the first one—as if that agreeable entertainment were some sort of sacred text. Others find the picture formulaic (it’s a romantic comedy, a genre always high on critical hit lists) and decry the non-judgmental depiction of its titular multimillionaire in the midst of our current economic meltdown (as if the original Arthur had not itself been released on the cusp of a deepening recession—and as if Hollywood had never produced grand, sumptuous musicals in the pit of the Great Depression). There are also those indignant about the movie’s comedic view of alcoholism (as if William Powell’s martini-marinated Thin Man films had never bestrode the box office), and more yet who resent the presence here, in the old Dudley Moore role, of Russell Brand, a more-than-usually irritating English import, in their view, who’s being force-fed to the indiscriminate moviegoers of this great nation.
I must pronounce myself baffled. Walking out of the movie before I became aware of this monolithic vituperation, I thought it was a fresh and more-than-usually funny rom-com, and that the transformation of Brand from the amusingly addled rock star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall into a full-fledged romantic lead had here been completed. In addition, for a love interest he’s been engagingly paired with onetime indie queen Greta Gerwig (whose onetime admirers are now bewailing this Hollywood sell-out). I can’t imagine anyone who enjoys well-made romantic comedies not enjoying this one.
The story remains approximately the same. Brand’s Arthur is a good-hearted Manhattan wastrel, a round-the-clock lush and heir to a vast fortune. Arthur uses his money for fun—not just accumulating a fleet of pricey cars (including a flame-spewing Batmobile), but also withdrawing thousands of dollars from ATMs to simply give away on the street. Unfortunately, his frosty mother (Geraldine James) has about had it with her son’s inebriated antics, and has threatened to turn off the money spigot unless he finds a suitable girl to settle down with. In fact she’s found one for him—a shark-hearted heiress named Susan (Jennifer Garner, cutting loose as a bratty schemer). He is even provided with an ostentatious engagement ring to accompany a marriage proposal. (Taking one look at its weighty diamond he says, “It looks like an ice rink for a mouse.”) Trapped in his luxurious lifestyle, Arthur reluctantly agrees to pop the question.
But then he meets another girl, a lower-class tour guide named Naomi (the soulful-eyed Gerwig), and for the first time in his life, Arthur falls in love. The question now becomes, will Naomi pass muster with Hobson (Helen Mirren in the role that won John Gielgud an Oscar in the original movie). Hobson is Arthur’s onetime nanny, who has stuck around to act as his doting life-guide. And since his real mother is emotionally remote (summoned to her office one day, he says, “I remember you from when I used to live in your womb”), Hobson’s surrogate support has been the one constant in this man-child’s life. Naturally, she is resistant to Naomi at first, but soon melts, and in the manner of rom-coms throughout the ages, the story now plays out as you know it must.
But the movie is agreeably salted with some very witty scenes set up by first-time feature director Jason Winer, and Brand navigates them with considerable comic grace. Pressured into attending an AA meeting to conquer his booze habit, Arthur is shocked to encounter people who’ve actually given up the bottle entirely. Rising from his chair in puzzlement, he tells the sober flock, “I came because I’d like to drink a bit less.” The picture’s not flawless, of course. A scene in the up-market candy store where Arthur gets his first job goes on too long (and too broadly), and a meeting with Susan’s hostile father (Nick Nolte, uncharacteristically awful), which involves a construction-site band saw, makes no sense at all.
But then there are scenes like Arthur and Naomi’s starry-night stroll through Central Park, which has a sweet, glowing charm. And that, I think, despite the chorus of critical opprobrium, is the quality that someone in the right frame of mind might most happily remember after the movie’s over.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.