Arthur (the original) at his bath
Shrunken, not stirred
Steve Gordon's Arthur (1981) was an unlikely triumph--a comedy about a drunken millionaire deft enough to pilfer your approval, perhaps even a little sympathy (drunks and millionaires sympathetic?). It took inspiration from P.G. Wodehouse's Wooster and Jeeves escapades, added a dollop of '30s screwball, and brought the whole unlikely concoction up-to-date with some choice profanity and '80s sensibility (New York, for one, is recognizably from the Ed Koch era).
It helps to have a scintillatingly comic cast. There's Dudley Moore as Arthur Bach, fresh off his success in Blake Edward's 10 (1979), doing the equivalent of ninety minutes of standup with deceptive ease ("Don't you wish you were me? I know I do."), the diametrical opposite of what, say, Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies was doing (the joke with Inspector Clouseau was that he was a perfectly serious detective that everyone found funny; the joke with Arthur was that he was a perfectly pickled comedian that no one found funny).
Moore's foil, of course, is John Gielgud's Hobson, the string to his helium balloon, the tart lemon juice to his fizzy champagne; where Arthur howled with laughter, Hobson sniffed disapproval and punctured Arthur's exuberance with an acerbic riposte, made contemporary with an obscenity or two ("Perhaps you would like me to go in there and wash your dick for you, you little shit."). Toss in a royal flush of comic performers--Liza Minnelli as Arthur's brassy New York love interest Linda Marolla; Barney Martin as Linda's unashamedly gold-digging father Ralph; Jill Eikenberry as Arthur's undesirable fiance Susan Johnson; Stephen Elliott as Susan's even less desirable father Burt; Geraldine Fitzgerald as Arthur's ferocious grandmother Martha ("We are a ruthless people--don't screw with us!")--and you have an irresistible souffle, a glittering little gem of silliness.
Come to think of it, even more charming than Gordon's fairy-tale metropolis was his vision of a New York generously populated with memorable eccentrics, where even the bittiest player had a democratic chance to shine (Lou Jacobi as an avariciously delighted flower shop owner ("You're the rich one? The one that drinks?" "Mm-mm." "How does it feel like to have all that money?" "Feels great." "What a dumb question."); Jerome Collarmore as the Johnsons' extremely frail butler ("Are you sure you want to be a nightclub comic?"); Peter Evans as the hapless Long Island patsy Preston ("Preston--would you be divine and get me a gin and tonic?" "Scotch for me, Preston." "You'll wait for me here?" "With a wildly beating heart!")).
The souffle fails to rise a second time with Jason Winer's remake. Russell Brand makes for a bizarre Arthur--instead of an overgrown child in an endless pursuit of happiness, either through the bottom of a whiskey glass or through the laughter of others, we have a rock star, an overgrown brat with huge appetites and even huger crotch bulge (the number of scenes where Brand is caught in colorful underwear displaying the sock collection he hides between his legs is annoying--you start to wonder if he's trying to tell you something). His nasal whine seems perfect for a modern celebrity portrait of androgynously decadent dissipation, but hardly what you might have had in mind for a romantic comedy.
In a bit of stunt casting Helen Mirren plays Hobson, and as great an actress as Dame Mirren is, she's wrong, wrong, wrong for the part--she plays Hobson as a long put-upon nanny who mutters her replies. Gielgud tossed darts dipped in acid; he only had to raise his eyebrow and you felt like giggling (it helped that he had more bare territory to raise that brow over; Dame Mirren is handicapped by her beautiful mane of hair). Greta Gerwig as Arthur's love interest is a total disaster--playing sweet and innocent opposite this lewd orangutang and you wonder why his hands aren't crawling all over her blouse like a pair of tarantulas. Moore was ably served by Liza Minnelli, who could more than hold her own when it came to comic delivery and improvisation ("Nice place; I love a living room you can land a plane in."); Minnelli's Linda was a New Yorker through and through, who when accused of shoplifting from Bergdorf Goodman takes out a pen and notepad and demands the store detective's name and address. Faced with police officers (she's operating a tour guide business without a license) Gerwig's Naomi doesn't even try to cope; she just turns and runs.
Director Winer, like Gordon, comes from television--why does one do so well on his transfer to the big screen and the other doesn't? There's wit to Gordon's directing that we don't see in the other; in the scene where Arthur's father sits in his office couch to deliver his ultimatum (marriage to Susan or the loss of his family fortune), Gordon has Arthur walk across the room past the old man and out the camera frame, fuming: "I'll get married when I fall in love with somebody!" "Fine," the father responds, "I respect your integrity. You just lost seven hundred and fifty million dollars."
A beat. Offscreen, a door slams shut. "Actually, Susan is a very nice girl," Arthur tells his father as he walks back into the camera frame.
Winer does the same scene almost line-by-line, only he inserts a shot of Brand facing the door, and it's a glass door, and it whispers shut. Then he turns and starts talking about Susan. No sharp staging, no surprise, and as a consequence, no sense of a visual wit at work.
The production design is perhaps more successful. Arthur's room is a sleek and gleaming wonder, with a bed floating off the floor via magnetic levitation that actually figures in the movie's slapstick. And I love his car collection, particularly the specially modified DeLorean (not a big fan of the Batmobile, though, which comes from the Schumacher and not the Burton Batman films). I wonder at a comedy, though, that relies less on line delivery and comic timing and more on gimmicky vehicles and costumes to get laughs.
Even more unlikely, Susan and her father have been thoroughly retooled, with hilarious results. Jennifer Gardner is a fiercer, more carnivorous Susan; decked out in dominatrix leather (with metal studs), she looks like she could eat Brand for lunch and have the leftovers for stir-fry dinner. Nick Nolte is a stunner--where Elliott was an unsettlingly vicious sociopath, Nolte seems considerably larger, more menacing than that, a monster even (when Arthur is careless with a nail gun, Nolte's Burt growls "it's nothing," and pulls a nail out of his arm's meaty side). This Susan is a fitting mate for Arthur--a woman who will crack her whip and keep him in line, plus a father-in-law who at the slightest excuse will pull out his intestines and use them for dental floss). I found myself thinking it's a pity--a tragedy even (skip the rest of this sentence if you plan to watch the movie, which I don't recommend)--that they don't end up together, a sentiment that is possibly the movie's finest, funniest joke. Too bad it's largely on the filmmakers.
First published in Businessworld, 4/28/11