The name Steve Gordon is far from well known in film circles, however his first and only directorial effort remains memorable to this day. For whilst Gordon will never be mentioned in the same breath as the great auteurs of his era, his sole feature film retains its standing as a comedy great of the 1980s, as well as cementing star Dudley Moore’s rise to fame. The movie in question is none other than Arthur, the 1981 popular and critical success featuring Moore as the titular character. Indeed, Gordon directed his leading man to an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe win for best actor in a musical or comedy, as well as co-star John Gielgud to an Oscar statuette for his supporting work. Alas, his career was cut short by a heart attack a mere year after the film’s release, however still the legacy of his only feature lives on. After the 1988 sequel Arthur 2: On The Rocks (directed by Bud Yorkin), a remake became inevitable, materialising in 2011 with Russel Brand taking on the iconic role.
Arthur Bach (Brand, The Tempest) spends his days in the pursuit of leisure, courtesy of his family’s wealthy means. Although his mother Vivienne (Geraldine James, Made In Dagenham ) disapproves of his lifestyle, she leaves the parenting to his nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren, Brighton Rock ), waiting until the worst happens to intervene. When Arthur’s latest exploits jeopardise the reputation of the business, Vivienne greets him with an ultimatum. Either he marries her right-hand woman – the ambitious Susan (Jennifer Garner, Valentine’s Day) – or he bids farewell to his claim on the family fortune. Complicating matters is his burgeoning bond with tour guide Naomi (Greta Gerwig, No Strings Attached ), with his decision a battle between love and money.
Brand’s meteoric rise over the last few years has been accompanied his own marketable brand of charming geezer comedy. His battles with intoxicants have been famously chronicled in his two booky wooks and countless interviews, although this hedonistic past has become just as much a part of his current persona. Despite his alleged rule of banning alcohol from the set of his films, Brand continues to play a series of drunkards and junkies leading lifestyles that we can only dream of. Comfortably slipping into a character that is equal parts Mick Jagger, Jack Sparrow, The Mighty Boosh‘s Noel Fielding and dandy fop, Brand’s Arthur is barely distinguishable from Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek. Much of Peter Baynham’s script relies purely on Brand making the most of a series of otherwise uninteresting scenes, giving the cockney imp an unrestrained (yet strangely santised) platform for random observations on the minutiae of the moment. This is particular surprising, and disappointing, from Baynham who is best known in the UK for his telesvision work on Steve Coogan’s I’m Alan Partridge, Chris Morris’ The Day Today and Brass Eye (including the infamous “Paedophilia” episode) and more recently with Sacha Baron Cohen on the features Borat and Brüno. For two people known for being ‘outrageous’ and ‘edgy’, Arthur is simply a toothless tiger.
Overcoming the aimless and unfunny first half of the film is the genuine charm and likeability of some of the supporting cast. Brand and his The Tempest co-star Mirren make an amusing duo, and Mirren’s no-nonsense nanny (with a heart of gold, of course) continues her run of fabulous characters she has been playing of late. The less obvious casting of Greta Gerwig, who came to prominence with the ‘mumblecore’ movement, makes for a decent foil to Arthur’s drunken follies, although there are times when she is a little too good for her own good – or for audience believability. When Brand does decide to act, and not simply ape his own carefully constructed persona, he reveals an incredible vulnerability that elicits some degree of pathos from the audience. Only Jennifer Garner truly stands apart with a transparent character that could have stepped out of any rom-com, and is so dislikable that the only real shock is when the rest of the cast figures this out as well. Let’s not even get started on whatever it is Nick Nolte is doing to cashing the cheques. Arthur is not so much a poor film as a misguided one, truly only finding its feet as its titular character begins to do the same.
The Reel Bits: Arthur has assembled a group of talented people to play it safe by bringing a watered-down version of their collective bests to the big screen. Much of the film’s enjoyment will depend on one’s tolerance of the lead, but also in a willingness to stick around long enough to find the gooey centre at the heart of this sticky-sweet generic brain candy.
Arthur was released on April 21, 2011 in Australia by Roadshow Films.