Amusement at the wacky high jinks of the wealthy has waned some since Dudley Moore's bibulous antics in the 1981 hit comedy Arthur. The financial meltdown, the bailout, and unconscionable CEO bonuses have seen to that. But Jason Winer's remake of the stodgy classic addresses that problem early on when someone asks the title billionaire (Russell Brand) whether spending a fortune on stunts like getting drunk and driving a Batmobile into the giant Wall Street bull sculpture is appropriate during a recession. "Recession?", Arthur replies, as if the idea were a new one to him. Then he takes a fortune out of an ATM and tosses the money to strangers.
So much for sensitivity and social commentary. One might also ask whether spending money on such a charmless and unfunny movie is justifiable during a recession, or at any time, for that matter. Especially when it's the audience that will be throwing its money away.
Why resurrect a film that was quaint 30 years ago and can at best be tasteless today? In fact, tastelessness might have been the right way to go. If screenwriter Peter Baynham had drawn on the same outrageousness he injected into Borat, this stilted, cloying, smarmy exercise in forced whimsy and crude farce might have engendered as much hilarity as one minute of Dudley Moore's subtly blitzed performance in the original.
Which brings me to Brand. I admit it: his appeal escapes me. His big shovel face, Medusa coif, and high-pitched, Geico Gecsko–like voice make me uneasy. Moreover, in a stovepipe hat, he looks like Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland — who also creeped me out. Brand certainly doesn't make his already obnoxious character any more pleasant to deal with.
Because, three decades later, Arthur is still a spoiled, aging child, though one with $950 million to play with. (It was $750 million in 1981, so in today's dollars he may have lost money.) But his cold-blooded mother (Geraldine James) — it was the father in the earlier version, the change no doubt reflecting the gains of feminism — wants him to "grow up." Her solution is to have him marry the equally ball-busting nouveau riche Susan (Jennifer Garner). In cahoots with her knuckle-dragging father (Nick Nolte), Susan sees in the dissolute scion an aristocratic pedigree for her bourgeois riches.
But other stereotyped women come to the big baby's rescue. Snooty Hobson (Helen Mirren pales before John Gielgud's acidic performance in the same role), his long-time nanny, rolls her eyes at his pitifulness but still believes in him. And kooky Naomi (Greta Gerwig), the "nobody from Queens" who works as an unlicensed tour guide and writes children's books, is drawn to him as well. Equally inexplicable is Arthur's attraction to Naomi, since Gerwig plays her as a kind of narcoleptic Betty Boop.
Naomi is a high price for Arthur to pay for a lifetime of inane indulgence; he'd be much better off with Susan, who enjoys beating him with a riding crop. And then there's the inevitable specter of our self-help age — the 12-step program. Oh, for the days when drunks had dignity and movies didn't have to fall back on cheap sentiment and platitudes to make up for their few guilty moments of subversion. As for all those guilty, real-life billionaires, don't expect them to imitate Arthur and throw any money your way.