'Arthur' director defends his remake: It allowed us to make a movie we never could have otherwise made
If you heard about an "Arthur" remake and felt skeptical, you're not alone: Director Jason Winer was also uncertain about the need for a new Russell Brand take on the Dudley Moore classic.
"I felt the same way when I first heard that they were remaking it. I was like, 'Why?'" Winer told 24 Frames about his movie about the carefree drunk forced to choose between love and money. "For our generation," he said, turning to a thirtysomething reporter and describing how he used to watch the movie after school when it aired on HBO, "we have fond memories of it as kids and it's natural to be skeptical about remaking it. But I think at least half of the audience haven't even heard of the original, or if they have, they haven't seen it.
"The other reason is that every once in a while the right actor comes along to do one of these things. And then it's like, 'Oh my goodness.' And if there's one guy who can reinvent this for a new generation, it's Russell," he said (alluding to Brand's outsize personality and his real-life struggles with substance abuse).
But Winer said that perhaps his greatest motivation was, counterintuitively, a remake's capacity for more creative freedom.
"This type of movie, which is an irreverent comedy that combines elements of romance and drama, is not something the studios feel comfortable making today -- except if it's a familiar title," the director said. "As critics and as filmmakers, we like to criticize a remake. The irony is that in this case it lets us do a genre the studios wouldn't otherwise be comfortable with."
The movie, one of the first in this remake-crazed era to tackle an adult-targeted film, has run into plenty of unfavorable comparisons with the original from critics and others. Winer, a first-time feature director who is one of the principal creative forces behind hit ABC show "Modern Family," said in the interview (which was conducted before much of the critical reaction began coming in) that one of the biggest challenges he faced was deciding what to retain and what to discard from the original.
The new Warner Bros. release does deviate from Steve Gordon's original in plenty of instances, as we document in this piece. But one element it maintains (note: spoiler alert; skip ahead if you don't want to know) is the third-act death of Hobson, the only permanent figure in Arthur's life. Such a plot turn would have been a tough sell in any other context, Winer said.
"If we were making an original movie, we never would have been able to have Hobson die. A studio would have tested it and said, 'Can't you just make her get better?' But now we could say to the studio -- 'Well, it's in the original.'"
Among the changes that Winer and screenwriter Peter Baynham did make was turning Hobson, played in an Oscar-winning turn by John Gielgud in the original, into a woman, played by Helen Mirren. "One of the big problems of how to remake this movie is how you get out from under the shadow of Gielgud's performance," Winer said. "And the nanny dynamic is not only funny but it reinvents it."
Perhaps the biggest switch (warning -- another spoiler alert): While the original ends with Moore's alcoholism intact, Brand goes to AA and gets sober. Winer says he knew some will criticize him for a recovery-centric ending but says his move had a certain logic.
"We're not trying to make up a parable about an alcoholic. But there is some sense of responsibility that has more to do with growing up than it has to do with not drinking," Winer said. "The way Arthur grows up is by realizing he doesn't need to heighten everything or blunt everything with alcohol."
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Helen Mirren and Russell Brand in "Arthur." Credit: Warner Bros.