As Arthur Bach, the boozy multimillionaire in the 1981 comedy Arthur, Dudley Moore played drunk like one of those Looney Tunes characters who fall into a barrel of liquor and come out hiccuping bubbles. It's a broad and frankly grating performance, but beyond the slurred speech and cockeyed walk, Moore added a cackle that revealed more about his character than merely how much vodka he'd ingested.
Because it's not just any old drunken cackle, but a mirthless cackle -- a sign that this spoiled blue blood painting the town every night isn't having any fun doing it.
Of the myriad things the new remake of Arthur gets wrong, missing Arthur's sadness may be the most damaging. Stepping in for Moore, Russell Brand has no trouble playing a hard-partying man-child; he's done it at least twice on film, after all, as the brash, showboating rock star in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and its spinoff, Get Him To The Greek.
He doesn't do pathos nearly as well. Rather than an Arthur who's insulated by his wealth and feelings of abandonment, Brand's version is a noxiously whimsical creature who uses his money to make dreams come true. So when it comes time to feel sorry for poor Arthur -- which is often, since the remake, like the original, offers three parts sentiment to one part comedy -- the emotions never resonate.
Among the many alterations to the '81 Arthur -- few of them an improvement -- the most prominent is Helen Mirren's casting as Hobson, Arthur's keeper, the role that won John Gielgud an Oscar for his dry, scabrous wit. Aside from one unfortunate reference to breast-feeding, changing Hobson's job from butler to nanny doesn't alter the dynamic one bit, and what little fun the new Arthur offers comes from the way Mirren perfectly mimics both Gielgud's comic disdain and that reassuring twinkle in his eyes. The film simply doesn't provide an Arthur worthy of her.
The story more or less touches the same bases: To keep his high-nine-figure inheritance, Arthur must agree to an arranged marriage to Susan (Jennifer Garner), a woman of elite stock who promises to bring some stability to his life -- and to the skittish investors who fear for the family business. When Arthur instead falls in love with Naomi (Greta Gerwig), a humble tour guide who lives with her father in Queens, he considers giving up his money for love. (Or perhaps contriving to have it both ways.)
Much of what stands for comedy in Arthur is extravagant displays of wealth, followed by mush-mouthed one-liners that barely register as jokes: an opening sequence, for instance, has Arthur crashing a Batmobile and trying to slur his way out of a ticket. For the audience, the attraction of this scene has less to do with Arthur being a particularly funny drunk than the fantasy of owning a Batmobile. So, too, with an impossibly elaborate date he stages for Naomi at an emptied-out Grand Central Station, a romantic gesture measured in dollar signs.
Worse still, the remake sells out Arthur's blue-blood fiancee, who in the '81 version was a bright, attractive, good-natured young woman who became collateral damage in his pursuit of Liza Minnelli's working-class wisecracker. This Arthur cravenly turns Susan into a monstrous status-seeker, making her less of a human being and thus much easier for Arthur to trample over in securing a meaningful adult relationship. In a particular low point, Garner should have received hazard pay for a humiliating sequence in which she throws herself at him only to be unexpectedly diverted -- clang! -- when her metal bustier is drawn to the underside of his magnetically charged hoverbed.
Ah, a hoverbed. Wouldn't it be dreamy to own one of those? In this Arthur, the ways money is spent prove far more enchanting than the tiresome sprite who's doing the spending.