Critical Mass: 'Arthur' stumbles, but not because he's drunk
The critics are not being kind to "Arthur," the remake of the 1980s comedy starring Dudley Moore as a lovable New York City millionaire and bumbling drunk. The new film stars Mr. Katy Perry himself, Russell Brand, as the bumbling drunk and changes the gender of his butler to a woman (Sir John Gielgud in the original; Dame Helen Mirren in the remake), but despite this crucial bit of recasting, it's the changes in our views toward alcoholism over the years that are really getting the critics going.
Times critic Betsy Sharkey thinks the script for the "Arthur" remake has been too cleaned up. Which is shocking, considering that it was written by one of the guys behind the very politically incorrect "Borat" in 2006. Even so, Sharkey writes, "The sanitizing is handled so artlessly it seems driven by fear of offending rather than by any true cultural sensitivity. So, for the addiction crowd there's a new AA story line."
Slate's Dana Stevens starts off reaffirming her love of the original and laments how the changes in our culture have made so much of what made the first film work seem tone-deaf in our current world. She writes, "The spread of AA culture and the recognition of alcoholism as a disease have made drunk jokes -- a comic staple in Dudley Moore's day -- seem gauche and unfunny." She continues: "And when Arthur 2.0 goes to a church-basement AA meeting and owns up to his addiction issues -- well, more power to Brand for quelling his real-life demons, but I'd rather watch Moore painstakingly balance a glass of whisky on the fender of his vintage car."
The Wall Street Journal's John Anderson has one word for the "Arthur" remake: mirthless. And like the other critics, he can't get around the film's uneasy relationship with the present: "No one outside of the filmmakers, apparently, need to be told that ever since Mr. Moore made drunkenness hilarious, there have been seismic shifts in attitude and opinion regarding substance abuse, addiction, 12-step programs, general health, etc. etc. -- call it the New Puritanism, call it good sense -- to which the new 'Arthur' seems fairly oblivious. The very idea of this movie suffers from a form of myopia that simply can't be overcome. And, of course, all would be forgiven, if only the thing were funny."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott is careful to differentiate between the funny drunk and the alcholic. He says, "Drunkenness, it is widely agreed, is funny: people fall down, slur their words and do crazy stuff they can’t remember the next day. Alcoholism, however, is sad. It wrecks lives, families, cars and livers. The first 'Arthur,' the product of a less anxious age, managed to find a workable balance of poignancy and pixilation, making its hero at once a lovable free spirit and a pitiable lost soul. This one, trying to repeat the trick, inadvertently affirms a truth definitively established in an early episode of 'The Simpsons,' namely that most drunks, however sparkling they may appear to themselves, are boring and tiresome to others.
But not every critic sees the early '80s as the golden era of lovable drunks. The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan does a little soul-searching with his negative review: "Was the lovable lush ever funny? I mean, honestly?" He adds: "Maybe it was a hoot back in the 1970s, the heyday of comedian Foster Brooks, who made a career out of pretending to be shellacked on 'The Dean Martin Variety Show.' By 1981, when the original 'Arthur' came out, the slurred-speech shtick of Dudley Moore -- the titular playboy alcoholic who cackled wildly at his own jokes and then fell down -- was already getting old." But that doesn't mean that the new "Arthur's" enlightened views toward alcoholism get a pass from O'Sullivan. He says, "The sight of Russell Brand doing essentially the same thing, in an utterly redundant remake ... is a little bit pitiful."
Lest you think "Arthur" trudges out to the box office friendless and alone, take heart that the old boozer has a few critics in his corner -- notably the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips, who surprisingly embraces the new P.C. take on Arthur's drinking. Though he has his problems with the film, he writes that "It would be nearly unthinkable, and at the very least a dubious challenge, for a commercial romantic comedy to embrace a career alcoholic's baseline adorability in the early 21st century. Thus, director Jason Winer's film, taken from [Peter] Baynham's script, makes a considerable deal about Arthur's heading into Alcoholics Anonymous.... This takes the material a few steps away from the realm of retro-screwball romance and into a more seriocomic realm. In theory, I'm for it.... But it makes the comedy tricky. (Also, it's weird to see aggressive product placement for Maker's Mark in a story that ends up in AA.)"
And perhaps Roger Ebert was taking a restroom break during the film's AA scenes, since he writes in his three-star review, "[Naomi's] remarkably forgiving of Arthur's irregularities, considering he has the self-discipline and tact of a Charlie Sheen. But then neither 'Arthur' deals with alcoholism as other than a colorful character trait. No one could drink like Arthur and not be dead at the end of 24 hours."
-- Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: From left, Nick Nolte, Russell Brand and Jennifer Garner in the remake of "Arthur." Credit: Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros.