This Arthur remake is one too many

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No one has been asking for a remake of Arthur. The 1981 screwball comedy that starred Dudley Moore as a drunken English heir falling for a working-class New Yorker is fondly remembered – and is worth delaying going to bed for when it shows up on late-night television – but it’s hardly a comedy classic that demands revision or reinterpretation. Still! Russell Brand needs a vehicle to break America!

Directed by Jason Winer and written by Peter Baynham, this Arthur begins with the perpetually piddled playboy revving through the streets of Manhattan in a Batmobile. It’s an image that grabs for your eyeballs – Batmobiles look great; who wouldn’t want to get in one – but it’s gimmicky, trying too hard. Would someone like Arthur, no matter how blotto or posh he was, be so stupid?

The film’s premise – an English toff has to marry the stiff, terribly proper woman his parents desire or have his inheritance cut off – seemed dated 30 years ago: would an aristocratic family really behave like that? In 2011, it seems positively absurd. Wouldn’t Arthur just parlay his errant, blue-blooded ways into a money-spinning turn on a transatlantic version of The F—ing Fulfords?

The new version does ring some changes. Gone is the Jeeves and Wooster-style relationship that John Gielgud and Moore double-acted so endearingly. Now Arthur’s being looked after by his nanny (Helen Mirren); the women he beds aren’t sweet-hearted hookers, but cold-hearted party girls who steal the contents of his uptown apartment; the pressure for him to marry comes not from his father, but his mother Vivienne (Geraldine James); his would-be wife Susan (Jennifer Garner) is an eyes-on-the-prize social climber: Arthur’s problem is women at least as much as it is alcohol.

In Steve Gordon’s original, Arthur was an unrepentant lush. He may have got the girl, but that didn’t mean he had to give up the bottle. New York in 1981 was barely stumbling out of recession, with whole blocks and neighbourhoods resembling war zones: the film could have played like a despicable ode to lofty living and conspicuous consumption, a sister fantasia to that seen in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), had it not been for the charming grace notes that Moore brought to the role.

This time round, in a nod to Puritanism, Brand’s Arthur winds up in an AA clinic. He mouths pieties about the latest recession, and in one of many mirthless set-pieces, withdraws a stack of dollars from a cash machine which he throws towards a crowd of hangers-on. This stab at soft moralism is not just all of a piece with modern-day Hollywood’s obsession with personal redemption, but it’s also mushy and insincere.

Of course Brand has his own history of debauchery, one whose eloquent, witty retelling fed into his role as a washed-up rock star in Get Him To The Greek. He’d appear to be made for Arthur. He tries hard. He even sheds all his clothes save his Y-fronts towards the end.

But that trying is itself trying. He preens and yammers away like a spivvier Jim Carrey, smart-talking with phrases closer to those he delivers in his stand-up show or to his prose style than to the kind of character Arthur is meant to be. A typical line – “Hello Vivienne. I remember you from when I used to live in your womb” – may possibly be funny, but it’s not at all charming.

Without charm, Arthur is just a spoilt baby, a narcissistic kidult who deserves a slap. It’s hard to believe that Mirren’s Hobson wouldn’t smack him around the chops; instead, she gets kinder and sweeter to him, especially in those scenes where, ailing in bed, she’s given a sentimental back story about the men she’s loved and the reason she’s so fond of her charge.

It’s even harder to believe that he has a future with local girl Naomi (Greta Gerwig). Not so much because he’s loaded and she’s eking out a living as an unlicensed tourist guide at Grand Central, but because of the different ways in which they move and talk. Gerwig is a mistress of minor chords and idiosyncratic rhythms; Brand prefers thespy whoops and hysterics. That she would fall for an idiot like him makes her an idiot, too.

There are many things to lament about this film – its excessive length, a fine comic actress like Garner reduced to playing a one-dimensional monster, Luis Guzman being given a half-cooked role as the chauffeur – but the biggest sin is that Arthur, who was such a soulful, delightful, oddly life-affirming character when played by Dudley Moore, is here merely a boring drunk. Where’s the fun in that?

On its first release, Taxi Zum Klo (1980) was seized by US Customs. The film (its title translates as “Taxi to the Toilet”) was written and directed by Frank Ripploh, who also takes the lead role of a schoolteacher who likes sex. He marks student essays while sitting on cottage toilets, picks up garage attendants, tells his homebody boyfriend that he’s going to clubs to pick up strangers.

These adventures, intercut with scenes of vintage porn, are shot naturalistically with (literally) warts-and-all candour and a good deal of droll humour. The film, far from being degenerate filth, is a loving document of pre-Aids Berlin, and a touching comedy about the human desire for and struggle to achieve intimacy.

Sweetgrass – “recorded” rather than directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash – is a tenaciously observed and a quietly absorbing ethnography about a pair of shepherds leading some 3,000 sheep on a 150-mile journey up into Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains for summer pasture.

There’s no narration and for long sections no sounds except for the surprisingly melodious bleating of the sheep. Some of the shots last a good while, giving you time to soak in the beautiful landscapes and ponder on the kinds of experience and graft that underpin this seasonal migration. It’s a powerful testimonial to a fading way of life.

T Rating: * * Arthur

T Rating: * * * Taxi Zum Klo

T Rating: * * * Sweetgrass

 

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