MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Arthur

(One and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Jason Winer, 2011

Rarely has the time seemed less right for a movie than it does for the Russell Brand remake of Arthur — that 1981 comedy semi-classic starring Dudley Moore in his career peak, as the drunken Manhattan heir to millions.   (Say when. Now.)

The Moore Arthur was a fancy swiller of whiskey, and a boozy wooer of waitresses (Liza Minnelli), a likable souse who defied his family’s mercenary badness and dullness by making a life out of drunken revels, playing a zany P. G. Wodehouse-ian Bertie Wooster to John Gielgud’s Jeeves-ish tart butler, Hobson, while trying to avoid a forced marriage to a family of rich boring snobs.

Coming at the start of the 1980s, when money ruled, the Moore Arthur seemed to have hitched a ride on the zeitgeist to come. But, arriving now, as we try to survive the recession, the Brand Arthur seems of dubious intent. Do we want to buy a movie where the romantic hero is a billionaire‘s son who’s never worked and doesn’t want to: a rich, slaphappy, childish drunk who throws away money on mad whims — like renting Grand Central Station, emptying it for a dinner date with a new heartthrob, and hiring an acrobatic troupe to provide entertainment? (Of course, love changes him. Doesn’t it always?)

But the silliness just keeps coming. The Brand Arthur is a film that one seriously suspects of sneaking out to the lobby and getting smashed on Marker’s Mark, when it isn’t staggering back up on the screen and making an utter ass of itself.

By comparison, the Moore Arthur — written and directed by Steve Gordon, who also wrote the well-regarded ‘70s TV series, “The Practice,” for Danny Thomas, and The One and Only for Henry Winkler — was a nice, witty attempt, mostly successful, to revive the bittersweet hilarious fizz and sparkle of the best 1930s-’40s screwball comedies. Those were movies often very familiar with alcohol, like My Man Godfrey (where William Powell was both the rich romantic hero and the butler), and the George Cukor-directed classics Holiday and The Philadelphia Story (both of which swam in playwright and drinker Philip Barry’s rich boozer jokes), or other screwball masterpiece like Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve and Midnight.

The Brand Arthur, is screwy all right, but it’s no ball. Do we really thirst now for comedies about billionaire’s sons engaged in hooch-fueled folderol when the real-life nation teeters on depression and Tea Party insanity and the real life rich get break after tax-break? Comedies where the leading man, Brand, wears wavy black locks under Lincolnesque top hats, squeezes into leotards, and proudly displays framed photos of himself, on the wall by his penthouse staircase, with a female friend, assuming the doggie position?

The original, many of us remember, was funny. Tipsy-funny. For Moore, coming after his star-maker movie Blake Edwards’ Ten, where he played a part that George Segal had passed on, it was as good as it would get.

In the later 80s, Dudley the 5’2’ Beyond the Fringe quartet composer/member, and Peter Cook’s teammate in the intoxicating Stanley Donen Faustian comedy Bedazzled (my favorite of all his pictures), carved out a movie niche as an elfin pre-Woody Allen romantic comedy lead, in other less successful “Cuddly Dudley” screwball wannabes like Unfaithfully Yours and Lovesick. (Both those roles were inherited from Peter Sellers after he died: the same Sellers who played one of the great comic drunk scenes of all time, woozily facing James Mason at the ping pong table, in the opening minutes of Lolita.)

But Arthur was Moore’s film peak. (Gordon’s too. He died the next year, at 42, never getting the chance to confirm or deny the promise of his first feature.) Moore played Arthur with a winning, offhand mix of weirdly childlike innocence and deliciously sly, self-kidding charm. In the new movie, it’s hard to accept the Brand Arthur as a hero of anything except kink. It’s even hard to find him a likable (or funny) funnyman, as he‘s been often before. He plays the role with an obnoxious nasal squeak of a voice that I got tired of almost as soon as I heard it.

Can we laugh and root for, today, such a smashed schmo, a rich wastrel who spends fortunes on silliness, with the same relish with which audiences laughed in 1981 at Dudley Moore’s Arthur, a beguiling little hedonist who at least had the decency not to squeak? Even allowing that this new movie were as funny, or half as funny, or even an eighth as funny, as the first –which it isn’t.

Brand isn’t the only culprit. Lay a place in flubbo hell for DGA award-winning director Jason Winer and writer Peter Baynham (Borat and the famous Pot Noodle TV commercials), who, one hopes, didn‘t completely lead Brand astray. (Maybe he led them astray.) The whole movie is misguided: a reeling, staggering, massively unamusing botch of a remake, made by a lot of obviously talented people who were obviously dragged into the wrong bar.

The Brand Arthur manages to squeeze out an indifferent performance even from Helen Mirren as the new Hobson, now a nanny, not a butler, replacing Gielgud but without the lines that could have revived Gielgud’s acid Oscar-winning flair. It has an emptily zany turn from Greta Gerwig (Greenburg) as the whimsy-laden romantic lead Naomi (the Liza role), now a self-employed tour guide conducting rogue tours. It has empty villainy from Jennifer Garner as Susan, the rich and nasty bride picked by Arthur’s mom Vivienne (Geraldine James) to marry and give him cover. And it has empty rancor from Nick Nolte as Susan’s scowling, ill-tempered Dad. (Who can blame him?)

Meanwhile, Luis Guzman kills time as Arthur’s manservant Bitterman (surely a role inspired by John Hillerman), a morose majordomo who plays the entire film as if he had stomach trouble. Who can blame him?

After the sheer lousiness or mediocrity of so many Hollywood romantic comedies, it’s depressing to see the memory of a good old one go blotto, in the hands of a lot of talented people. Why did this happen? Where is there a romantic comedy touch today anything like Lubitsch’s? Or Wilder’s? Woody Allen some time again, maybe? Jason Reitman? Judd Apatow? Alexander Payne? (My own nominee, but why can’t he work more?)

Winer’s TV series Modern Family, won him his DGA directing award. Did he enjoy himself following the Brand Arthur into its sea of boozy miscalculation, would-be witticisms and horny excess? Couldn’t he at least gotten Brand not to squeak? Some of the crucial attributes of good, or great comedy, include mastery of tone, and the ability to second-guess the audience, to keep surprising and delighting them. The new Arthur has none of that, though the old one certainly did.

Late in the film, the Brand Arthur even decides to hedge its bets and give us a temperance lecture, to add a scene where Arthur disrupts an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and to play it not as something comic or dramatic, but as a demonstration, I guess, of what not to do at A.A. meetings. The preachments pall. The Brand Arthur’s politics often seem that somewhat dull movie variant: the correctly incorrect. The Moore Arthur, at least had the dignity of its own debauchery.

I’m not being frivolous about addiction. Actually I’m sensitive to the subject. Is it an occupational hazard that so many of our greatest writers, including some Nobel Prize winners, were drunks or heavy drinkers: Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hammett, Chandler, Sinclair Lewis, Tennessee Williams? Alcohol and alcoholism are the subjects or dramatic engines of many classic American plays, not just Barry’s upper-class comedies, but Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Front Page, and The Iceman Cometh. (It’s also the secondary subject of a great movie review: Roger Ebert’s original 1981 note on the Moore Arthur.)

And, along with Mary Tyrone’s morphine addiction, it’s the dramatic engine of the finest single play in all of America’s dramatic literature, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, and of its great blistering drunk scene: Jamie Tyrone’s screaming, hilarious, heartbreaking and finally shattering tirade and weeping embrace of his brother Edmund (“You’re my Frankenstein!“), after a night of boozing and whoring.

I once directed a whole production of the play — a very good one at the University of Wisconsin starring Curt Karibalis, who was wonderful as James Sr. — simply so I could be cast as Jamie and play that scene. It was one of my happiest-saddest moments on stage, and whenever I did it, I felt it always intoxicating me to the core. (I still do parts of it sometimes, for myself, alone, late at night.)

Booze and its spell and tragedies — or at least the long mornings after when O‘Neill wrote it all down — engendered that moment in “Night,“ and many other great dramatic or comic moments. Alcohol can kill or damage. It’s also the great American theatrical loosener of tongues.

So, in the end, I do think the new Arthur could have worked, whether the time was right or not. It‘s not bad timing. It’s just a bad film. And, though I don’t take booze and boozing lightly, I can laugh at the Moore Arthur, just as I laugh at the mad jokes and soused heart-stabbing speeches of Jamie Tyrone, especially when Jason Robards spoke them in Sidney Lumet‘s great 1962 film.

Arthur, neither Moore’s nor Brand’s, is nowhere within leagues of those writers above and their works. But, in a way, the Moore Arthur‘s drunkenness — which Moore obviously knew well and executed wittily and beautifully — gave the first film a serious edge, on which it didn’t quite deliver. There‘s no serious edge to the Brand Arthur, not even in the major dramatic scene that’s supposed to rend our hearts — and the pity of it is, there’s no comic edge either.

Be Sociable, Share!

3 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Arthur”

  1. Jess says:

    I could kiss you right now. Brilliant review.

  2. RetroGuide says:

    I won’t say that Dudley Moore was a genius, but he had talent, of that there is no doubt.

    Brand is simply incapable of coming anywhere close to Moore’s talent. In fact, I don’t know of any current actor that could take on the role of Arthur and make it their own.

    The new Arthur is a unnecessary remake made worse by being poorly cast, with the exception of Dame Helen. Every one feels out of place, like they have no idea why they even accepted the role.

    I have to admit not holding much hope for this movie when I walked into the theater but I tried to keep an open mind. By the time the movie was ending, I was ready to walk out.

    I think we can just file this movie right along side the Pink Panther of 2006 for horrible and unnecessary remakes.

  3. Pat says:

    Sheesh, were you as sensitive about the potheads in “Your Highness”?

    And how can you ask if there is an audience these days for debauched rich folk with the economy in the dumps? In the preceding paragraph you list a number of successful, classical screwball comedies about rich morons, ALL of which were made during the Great Depression. Even the original Arthur was released in 1981 at the height of an economic recession.

    Somebody needs to watch “Sullivans Travels” again, and pay closer attention.


awesome stuff. OK I would like to contribute as well by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to modify. check it out at All custom premade files, many of them totally free to get. Also, check out Dow on: Wilmington on DVDs: How to Train Your Dragon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Darjeeling Limited, The Films of Nikita Mikhalkov, The Hangover, The Human Centipede and more ...

cool post. OK I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to customize. check it out at All custom templates, many of them dirt cheap or free to get. Also, check out Downlo on: Wilmington on Movies: I'm Still Here, Soul Kitchen and Bran Nue Dae

awesome post. Now I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some beautiful and easy to modify. take a look at All custom premade files, many of them free to get. Also, check out DownloadSoho.c on: MW on Movies: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Paranormal Activity 2, and CIFF Wrap-Up

Carrie Mulligan on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Great Gatsby

isa50 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Gladiator; Hell's Half Acre; The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Rory on: Wilmington on Movies: Snow White and the Huntsman

Andrew Coyle on: Wilmington On Movies: Paterson

tamzap on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Magnificent Seven, Date Night, Little Women, Chicago and more …

rdecker5 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Ivan's Childhood

Ray Pride on: Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon