Saturday, September 24, 2011

ARTHUR | 2011 | Probably Better on Paper.

When it was announced that a remake of Arthur was on the way and that Russell Brand would be taking on the role defined by Dudley Moore, it feels like there was a lot of indignant outrage flying about.  I have nothing to back up that assertion.  I just recall observing people who were clearly passionate about the original film, and yet were acting in a decidedly un-Arthur way about the remake.  I'm pretty sure it was people and not person.  If it were person, I'd share an anecdote because it would be a singular memory.  So, you're going to have to trust me when I say there was a minor controversy about casting this film.

This is what I have to say to the, possibly made-up, people outraged about what they thought was the Arthur 2011 Castastrophe:  Perhaps Russell Brand is no Dudley Moore, but he's no Dane Cook either.  Of all currently available options by way of casting the title role of an Arthur remake, the best one happened.

Meanwhile some folks, many of the same folks, seemed to think the whole idea of remaking Arthur at all was misguided, regardless of casting.  I took a wait-and-see approach with this complaint, but kind of felt like I'd end up agreeing.  But it turns out that story-wise, the Arthur remake is actually slightly stronger than the original.  Sadly, those strengths were weakened by the direction, and so in the battle of Arthur (1981) vs. Arthur (2011), I think we can call it a draw.

The new one, like the old one, is about a drunk named Arthur who has chosen to live off family money, avoid any of the standard trappings of adulthood, and enjoy on the constant (if reluctant) care and attention of Hobson (a butler in the original, a nanny in the remake).  His family insists he marry Susan, a union that will benefit the family's finances.  Initially Arthur agrees, figuring it's better to gain a wife than lose the cash, but then he falls in love.  And that's the question of the film, What will Arthur do for love?  Will he grow up?  Will he sober up?

As far as how the two Arthur's relate to Screwball as a genre, well, using the standards I roughed out in March, each Arthur is a solid Screwball (see also: checklist below).  And, had the remake been handled a bit more nimbly, it could have been a Classic Screwball.  It was within spitting distance of a deft social commentary at one end of the spectrum, and a few timing tweaks away from satisfyingly loopy comedy at the other end, but essentially failed on both counts.

The new version acknowledges a poor economy, delves a bit more deeply into Arthur's core relationships, and includes a wider variety of personalities and classes in his world.  If it'd been done well it would have made Arthur more vivid, funny, and sympathetic.  Instead, the chasm between haves and have-nots is dropped after an ATM is used to shower the common folk with cash, and the people around him are played for sentiment and melodrama instead of insight.  Though I appreciate the effort, it's heartbreaking that none of it lands.

The new Arthur also takes a few stabs at frenetic physical comedy so common in the "Golden Age" of Screwball.  Like when Naomi gets caught operating an unlicensed walking tour of NYC, flees the scene in hopes of avoiding a fine, and Arthur, the police and the tourists chase after her - this coulda been a classic scene.  And Naomi is so much more a Claudette Colbert-style heroine, it's in the dialog, it's in the performance, and yet there's no magic.  Another scene that is super close to Classic Screwball physical comedy, but falls flat, is when Arthur invites Naomi to his home and his fiance Susan shows up at the same time.  There's a lovely backdrop of Looney Toons running in the home theater, it's a large home with many doors, Hobson is trying to protect Naomi from Susan and Arthur from Naomi, while Arthur is trying to get rid of Susan before Naomi learns about her.  Excellent set-up, lackluster execution.

Again, it's all a bit heartbreaking because the remake could have been totally transcendant Classic Screwball. There are so many great parts to the remake.  The script seems acceptable, the talent is charming and lively, and yet it feels like there's something holding it all down. It wants to sparkle, there's no reason it shouldn't have, and yet it's just dull.

The original is a classic movie because of Dudley Moore's highly entertaining performance.  The remake is close to equally entertaining, but it's not a classic on any front.  It could have been, but it's just not.

Screwball Checklist:
Because Screwball as a genre is usually associated with things like Art Deco, Cary Grant, and The Great Depression, I'm going to run through my little checklist to explain how/why both original and remake of Arthur are indeed Screwball.

Comic anti-hero struggling to identify and/or earn the best, most appropriate partner?
Check. This is pretty much the core of the story.

Class conflict?
Check. Again, this is right at the heart of the story. Though Arthur is from money, his values are not theirs, and his internal conflict is made external when he falls for a commoner.

Urban setting?
Check. NYC, probably home to most of the Screwball Comedies. Probably most Rom-Coms too. Also, both versions escape the city to gain fresh perspective. Naomi/Linda live outside of Manhattan, while Susan spends time at a large country-ish.

Value placed on child-like outlook?
Check.  Hobson, the audience surrogate and the most trusted and reliable character, seems to know that the sensitivity is what leads him to appear weak but will ultimately be his strength.

Art and Fart?
Check. Look no further than Hobson conversing with tarts, perhaps the ultimate intersection of high- and low-brow.

Baseline dissatisfaction with the status-quo?
Check. As much as Arthur values wealth, he values people more.

Arthur 1981
Writer/Director: Steve Gordon
Producer: Robert Greenhut
Leads:  Dudley Moore, John Geilgud, Liza Minelli
Genre:  Comedy, Rom-Com

Arthur 2011
Writer:  Peter Baynham
Director: Jason Winer
Producer:  Chris Bender, Russell Brand, Larry Brezner, and more.
Leads:  Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Greta Gerwig
Genre:  Screwball, Rom-Com