Its not that Russell Brand has been wholly miscast as the titular character in the remake of ARTHUR, rather its that hes been given too much space in which to work. His performance of an impromptu and witty solo about being emasculated by his fiancee (Jennifer Garner) has about it the whiff of Noel Coward, though admittedly Mr. Coward on an off day. The tender, and entirely ineffectual, attempts to minister to Hobson (Helen Mirren) the nanny who never deserted him, smack of real warmth as well a perfectly calibrated slapstick. The problem with ARTHUR is that while Mr. Brand has a keen understanding of performing as Mr. Brand, a charmingly self-involved narcissist with an original take on how the world should work and the ability to verbalize same with a pithy erudition, his grasp of playing a different character, however similar to his own public persona, is iffy. Director Jason Winer, who has a fine touch elsewhere in the film, has for whatever reason, chosen to let Mr. Brand be Mr. Brand with the resulting film being an uneven thing with occasional bursts of sweetness, sly satire, and laugh-out-loud humor.
The story has been updated from the original, which reflected the concept of unimaginable wealth through the prism of the excess of 1980. It was a more innocent time, when Arthur was a loveable drunk and his family was concerned only with his being a social embarrassment. In the second decade of the 21st century, Arthur has a drinking problem, and as the only heir to the family multi-national business, the embarrassment of his alcohol-fueled but good-natured antics threatens to undermine stockholders confidence. Hence, Arthur is given the choice of marrying Susan (Garner), a business genius capable of currying confidence as well as being able to run things, or being financially cut off. Naturally Arthur chooses the money, to the relief of his cold mother (Geraldine James), of his nurturing if starchy nanny (Mirren), and of Susan herself, who has money, but not as much as Arthurs family, and none of the social connections and status that marrying him would bring.
Its made very clear that the debauchery of Arthurs life would in no way be affected by the marriage. While Susan is still smarting by Arthur having dumped her after sleeping with her, the first man to ever do so, she is not a stickler for anything but the form of the institution, not the meaning of it. This should make Arthurs new attachment to soulful Grand Central Station tour-guide Naomi (Mumblecore princess, Greta Gerwig) no problem, except that while introducing him to such middle-class delights as canned pasta, she also introduces him to a startling emotional sincerity that strikes a strangely resonant chord in him. When she refuses his money, as well as the offer to become his mistress, he has no frame of reference.
Brand is keenly on his game with the comedy. After accidentally shooting several nails into his father-in-law to be (Nick Nolte), he processes the older mans refusal to seek medical attention by noting that having nails driven through him made a hero of Jesus, delivering the line with a man-childs dead seriousness. He has a man-childs sort of glee when confronting the recession by tossing money, and lots of it, to an appreciative crowd. He also summons up the right sort of anguish over Hobsons illness that evokes the little boy he still is, emotionally arrested after the death of his adored father.
As re-imagined by Peter Baynham, money is not an end in itself, and the many differing things that is means to the protagonists all come in for scrutiny, with Arthurs view, that money should bring happiness, taking the forefront with a logic that is anything but glib, though manifested in a childish way that, unlike Brands performance, needs only firm direction, not the iron fist being used on him. He also re-imagines Arthur as a man without wearing the blinders of class-distinction, setting him distinctly apart from the rest of his class. Brands tendency to burble on, and Winers willingness to bring us along for it, dulls the proceedings where they should sparkle.
The film is well-served Mirren, and her ability to stave off the encroaching waves of sentimentality and schmaltz with a performance that transmutes Hobsons soft spot for Arthur into tough love in sensible shoes and a serious right hook, verbally and literally. Garner uses her personable qualities to nice effect as the smiling deal-maker with a flinty heart that doesnt beat so much as keep time with the stock ticker, and Gerwig takes a quirky character and turns it into a three-dimensional woman with an infectious capacity for joy that has nothing to do with price of things and everything to do with their worth.
ARTHUR panders to an audience of less than Arthurian-style wealth, one that at once delights in everything that money can do except guarantee happiness. In that it succeeds with its hero driving the actual Batmobile, or one of them anyway, and being able to create the perfect fantasy first date, but is still not his own master, dependent as he is on both Hobson for his emotional support, and the money that makes it all possible. A tighter script, a tighter edit, and a tighter control over Mr. Brand would have made this a much better movie.