Arthur Bach (Russell Brand) lives a life without boundaries. With more than $900 million in family fortunes at his disposal, Arthur spends his days doing whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Within the first twenty minutes, the film shows Arthur and his manservant Bitterman (Luis Guzman) crashing the Schumacher Batmobile into the Charging Bull, distributing free cash on the evening news, and buying the suit Lincoln was shot in at auction and wearing it home. Everything is perfect until Arthur's mother Vivienne (Geraldine James), concerned about the impression Arthur's antics are having on stockholders, finally issues an ultimatum: marry Susan (Jennifer Garner), a businesswoman with her eye on the prestige of running the Bach corporation, or be cut off from the cash.
Based on the film's IMDb synopsis, these appear to be, in very broad strokes, the same beats of Steve Gordon's 1981 film Arthur, which won John Gielgud an Academy Award. The new Arthur probably won't offend fans of the Dudley Moore version, but it probably won't stick with them either: it's a number of talented people doing very good, enjoyable work in service of an overwhelmingly, agonizingly mediocre movie. Although the cast wrings as much as they can from each and every scene, the direction is adequate, and everything moves along at an acceptable pace, the film itself, the shell surrounding everything, is a slog full of boring romantic comedy cliches the audience has seen time and time again.
Many people do not like Russell Brand, but I am not one of them. Exhibiting a deep vocabulary and a skill at manipulating his long, flexible limbs, Brand is like a verbose, erudite Jim Carrey. Almost every chuckle in Arthur comes not from the situations the script presents for the characters but from Brand's nonchalant way with words. In the first scene after the Batmobile crash, Arthur pays for not only his own bail, but the bail of everyone else in the prison. When a reporter asks him why, he replies: "It seemed unfair that I should go, and they would remain." There isn't even really a joke there, but Brand's choice of words creates one out of thin air. Arthur is followed around day and night by his nanny Hobson, the role Gielgud played in the original. This time, Helen Mirren takes on the character, which is a fairly inspired choice, but her performance, while good, never reaches quite the heights that viewers might be expecting. Instead, the radiant Greta Gerwig outshines both Mirren and Brand as Arthur's would-be true love Naomi. She imbues the movie with a mousy heart, polishing the film's frequently cheesy romantic dialogue until it almost shines.
Sadly, the positives are like passengers on a sinking ship. Early on, the movie realizes it has to have a plot, but nothing is ever invested in the threat of the sham marriage, a future without riches, or Arthur's drinking, which is present in almost every scene but merely lingers over the movie like an uncomfortable shadow. Garner's character Susan would be a better romantic rival if Garner was ever allowed to have any fun in the role, something that comes dangerously close to happening during a scene when she shows up at Arthur's apartment drunk, but stops when she gets magnetized to the underside of his levitating bed. Instead, the film reduces her to a dull caricature whose actions cause problems whenever things are going well with Naomi. There is also the potentially menacing Nick Nolte as Susan's father Burt, who fails to flinch when shot by a nail gun and holds Arthur's tongue to a band saw, yet somehow his menace fails to register amidst an accent that Nolte practically chokes on and screen time that barely amounts to two scenes (more like 1.75).
The film saves the worst misstep for last: a closing scene that really rams home the conventional nature of the entire movie; despite numerous in-scene attempts to puncture the moment, the whole scene comes off as the most trite and contrived moment of all. Arthur is one of those films the studio greenlit as product and everyone involved did their best to elevate and improve it. That effort is visible in the final product -- watching the characters interact with one another in the film is a mild pleasure -- but the plot keeps insistently barging in. The description "less than the sum of its parts" has never been more apt.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.