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The Fashionably Late Review: Arthur

September 2, 2011

I know people who simply hate all sci-fi movies, or all horror, or all rom-coms. I recently met a guy who criticized the excellent Another Earth as “too indie.” (Huh?!) I’m not one to blithely dismiss entire genres of film. (For the record, I don’t necessarily think “indie” is a genre.) Every form of art has its categories and subcategories. I like to think I can enjoy a good example of a given genre, but I also recognize that there are going to be bad examples too. There’s great sci-fi, and bad sci-fi, and so-bad-it’s-great sci-fi.

And then there are the in-betweens. The stuff that you’ll watch because you like the actor, or the director, or the key grip. Stuff that you might Netflix on a Sunday afternoon when you have the flu. It’s not great. It’s not offensively awful. It’s just…there. It’s disposable. It exists to fulfill some actor’s dream or give the studios a throwaway movie to release the same weekend as their Avatar 2: Iron Potter and the Rings of the Caribbean juggernaut. It isn’t good enough to earn a word-of-mouth recommendation to your friends. But it’s also not bad enough, or so offensively banal that you hate it enough to rant about it on the Internet.

I rarely reject an opportunity to watch these C-student films. Occasionally you’ll discover a surprising gem (as I did in the case of The Dilemma, which was a very different movie from what was portrayed in the trailer, and Battle: Los Angeles, which I maintain was better than many critics gave it credit for). Recently, I had some free evenings with Mrs. theGeek which we opted to spend on a few selections from the ever-growing stack of unwatched movies I’ve…borrowed. Yes. Let’s say borrowed. In each case, we managed our expectations going in. As it turns out, that was probably a good idea.

Arthur posterThe first movie we watched was Arthur. Let me say right off the bat that I actually kind of like Russel Brand. His performances (admittedly, of the same character) in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek were solid. He can be funny and entertaining. The thing is, his funniness and entertaining…ness are inversely proportional to the amount of screen time allotted to him. In small doses, pulled on screen for the occasional joke or sight gag, he’s great but he cannot carry an entire film. (For the record, we’ll all agree that Get Him to the Greek was about Jonah Hill’s character, not Brand’s.) Now compound this with the fact that Arthur is a completely unnecessary remake of the 1981 Dudley Moore vehicle of the same name and you have a textbook disposable comedy.

Like Moore’s, Brand’s Arthur is a ridiculously wealthy man-child whose irresponsible-but-lovable schtick has worn thin with his family (namely his mother). He drinks, throws wild parties with strangers, and crashes his Batmobile into national monuments. He spends money like it’s his job, because he doesn’t actually have a job. His mother grows weary of Arthur’s shenanigans and, using the excuse that his behavior is scaring the stockholders of the (unspecified) family business, arranges a marriage between Arthur and Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), the blue-blood daughter of an equally wealthy construction magnate (Nick Nolte). Naturally, Arthur doesn’t want to marry Susan because he has fallen for Naiomi (Greta Gerwig), a poor but bright-eyed and free-spirited New York girl who subverts the law as an unlicensed tour guide. Unfortunately, mother has stipulated that if Arthur does not marry Susan, he will lose his entire gazillion dollar inheritance. Arthur is enabled in his chicanery by his faithful and simple-minded chauffeur Bitterman (Luis Guzman, for absolutely no reason) and is reined in by Hobson, his uptight but dedicated . . . I don’t know . . . Nanny? Valet? Whatever. The role is inexplicably but deftly handled by Helen Mirren.

Brand squeezes his natural British accent into a squeaky facsimile of Dudley Moore’s high-pitched, high-born English and spends most of his time grinning or fast talking his way through one set-piece after another. Guzman does what he can with the role as the bumbling and barely-there Bitterman. Garner slides pretty easily between prim & proper and conniving, but gives a rather embarrassing performance when her character gets drunk and tries to seduce Arthur. Gerwig is utterly unremarkable as Naiomi. She is interchangeable with at least a dozen other more recognizable actors. I can certainly appreciate a filmmaker’s desire to get unknowns in major roles; you can discover some really great talent that way. But not here. In a film full of knowns, the unknown Gerwig stands out not for her performance but for her blandness.

Put simply, the material is not strong, but the players do what they can. Perhaps not surprisingly, consistent badass Mirren brings the gravitas in buckets. She is so good and so woefully underutilized in this movie, one wonders if the director, screenwriter, and casting director ever had any discussions about her character. You’d think that after a few days of shooting Mirren, the director would at least request a few rewrites here and there to expand her role. Or maybe this is and always was a vanity project for Brand, and Mirren was just there to bring in the intellectual audiences. Regardless, Mirren carries more than her share. Mostly because she has to.

Arthur is ultimately a tv-dinner of a movie. The movie equivalent of Hootie & the Blowfish. It is beige. It is vanilla. I didn’t hate it, but I won’t recommend it. Stay tuned for more selections as we explore this shrugworthy concept of the disposable movie.

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