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Have you ever wished that someone would remake your favorite older movie, not because you want it remade, but so that the original would be released in a beautiful Blu-ray edition? That's apparently what's happened with the 1981 comedy hit Arthur, now being floated in a new version with Russell Brand and Helen Mirren. Recent articles I've read touting the remake seem to be written by people who never heard of the original -- you know, movie opinion-makers whose vast appreciation for film goes back whole years. I wish the new movie a lot of luck, as the original is a happy accident, a fairly uninspired concept made a great deal of fun by virtue of a funny script and an extremely well chosen cast. Arthur was a major hit at the dawn of cable TV, and became fodder for a sequel almost seven years later. Interestingly, almost all of the original cast members were still available for the second picture, although the show's creator Steve Gordon had passed away at a young age, only a year after Arthur became his one feature breakthrough hit.
The movie is a showcase for Dudley Moore, an exceptional talent difficult to package for American audiences. Before the late 1970s he was half of a celebrated comedy team with Peter Cook. They were a phenomenal stage act and their Faust takeoff feature Bedazzled, directed by Stanley Donen, is a fantastically witty show that still reduces theater audiences to tearful laughter. Nevertheless, neither it nor other Moore/Cook films were big hits. Moore had an impressive career in music as well. His starring role in Blake Edward's 10 cast him as a successful composer. Arthur confirmed Moore's star status. Writer-director Steve Gordon's one-liners make him into a virtual laugh machine, although some critics took issue with what was essentially a feature-length drunk act. Moore pulls it off exceedingly well, and is aided by a non-stop barrage of good jokes and fine supporting actors. That's a tall order in a comedy era dominated by Chevy Chase pictures.
Fabulously wealthy New Yorker Arthur Bach (Moore) has no intention of acting his age or taking on any responsibility, as his life as a playboy is an endless round of drinking, laughing, sex with prostitutes and more drinking and laughing. Arthur's ebullience charms almost everyone, and his money guarantees that he's never thrown out of the ritziest restaurants, even when he traipses in with a hooker in tow, stumbling over furniture and making a fool of himself with the other customers. Arthur is pampered, protected and criticized by his man's man Hobson (John Gielgud), a refined snob who raised his incredibly spoiled employer from birth and can be brutally honest with him. But Arthur's blissful anarchy is coming to an end, as his father and his Aunt Martha (Geraldine Fitzgerald) tell him that he must go through with a convenient marriage to Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry), the daughter of the fierce wheeler dealer Burt Johnson (Stephen Elliott). If not, he'll be cut off from his $750 million share of the family estate. The spineless Arthur agrees until he meets waitress Linda Marolla (Liza Minnelli) shoplifting a tie for her unemployed father Ralph (Barney Martin). They fall in love, something Arthur has never experienced. As the date for his wedding approaches, Arthur is forced to tell Linda about his predetermined future. He also must deal with Hobson's failing health. Will Arthur pull himself together (and climb onto the wagon) long enough to take charge of his life? And does he dare walk away from all that Moolah?
Arthur is not a movie even to mention to an AA member, as the character is a plain-simple destructive fantasy, far beyond any mere concerns of political correctness. But with that drawback aside Arthur is a heck of a funny picture, a throwback to old-fashioned drunk comedy. It's all about chemistry. Dudley Moore cracks an unbroken string of nervy jokes, and laughs at them at the top of his voice. When the remarks aren't about his drinking, they're gauche in extremis, as this example in a restaurant: "You're a HOOKER? Jesus, I forgot! I just thought I was doing great with you!" Some of his cracks are watered-down Groucho, but he sells them with panache (and ice). Rather than quote a pack of them, I'll leave the uninitiated to discover them on their own.
Shakespearean John Gielgud steals the show. Gielgud is one of the more refined and dedicated great Brit actors, who tried for a mainstream film stardom fifty years before (in an Alfred Hitchcock show, no less) and retreated to a long line of superb character turns. 1981 audiences were therefore floored when Gielgud dishes out deliciously droll put-downs, the kind of elitist remarks that would be insufferable in any other context. Hobson wishes Linda Marolla good luck in jail. His droll, obscene retorts at Arthur are hilarious because he's everybody's idea of high culture, and because they confirm what we've guessed about snobby movie butlers since sound came in. Gielgud interacts beautifully with Moore's Arthur, and validates the younger actor's performance.
That leaves Liza Minnelli, who is much more endearing than in her earlier daffy duckling roles, where she often wore out our patience for quirky cuteness. Queens dweller Linda Marolla is neither a pushover nor a simpering fool, and she has to take Arthur in small doses before she realizes what a gem he is under the booze. It's not a recommended courtship path, but at least Linda doesn't sleep with Arthur, and she puts her personal pride ahead of the money, a virtue that reduces her needy father to Jello. In the theater, the biggest laugh comes when Linda refuses Arthur's kiss-off check for $100,000 ... and we hear the dad's yelp of distress from the next room, where he's been attentively eavesdropping. Barney Martin is very endearing in the part.
Geraldine Fitzgerald is the armor-plated Aunt who openly envies Arthur his promiscuous lifestyle, yet is determined to harness him to some worthy ambition, like a real job. Jill Eikenberry is an avaricious society doll convinced she's in love with Arthur, at least as long as it will take to nail him to a marriage and start a reform program. Her aggressive father, a bootstrap millionaire who started out by breaking legs, also scores as a major threat to Arthur's health. He's played by Stephen Elliott, who will be instantly recognizable as the moneybags ogre J.J. Cord from the neo-noir classic Cutter's Way.
Arthur's admirable balancing act carries its neo-screwball antics to a sentimental final act that works because of the good will built up between Arthur and Hobson -- no spoilers here. The amusing finish -- with a great throwaway final gag -- satisfies even though the story hasn't a moral or ethical leg to stand on. Arthur continues to sell out big time, and the fantasy of his liver's superhuman ability to absorb alcohol will continue as well. The film is a launching pad into the selfish excesses of the 1980s for the wealthy. Laugh it off, nothing matters except now! Arthur makes this silly fantasy a lot of fun for all but the most discerning audiences. Perhaps the closest point of comparison is with Elaine May's A New Leaf, an earlier comedy about an utterly clueless and self-absorbed rich jerk (Walter Matthau) who refuses to accept the fact that his money is all gone.
Also making bit appearances are Mary Allan Hokanson, Paul Gleason, Lou Jacobi and the irrepressible Lawrence Tierney.
Seven years later Dudley Moore's star was in decline, and Bud Yorkin weighed in with a direct sequel written by TV scribe Andy Breckman, who would put in a fairly interesting effort with the later I.Q.. Almost everybody comes back for more fun -- Minnelli, the fierce Geraldine Fitzgerald, Stephen Elliott, the charming chauffeur Ted Ross, and Barney Martin. Jill Eikenberry is replaced by Cynthia Sikes. A narrative trick brings back third-billed Gielgud's Hobson, but just for one scene. The movie suffers from the sequel malady known as "do it all again, only different". Characters constantly refer to events of the first film. The pitiful new storyline sees Arthur putting up with poverty for a couple of reels, while he and Linda try to adopt a baby from social worker Kathy Bates (who is so young, she looks like a baby herself). Jack Gilford is an ancient landlord renting the dive that the disinherited Mr. and Mrs. Bach must inhabit. The film's problem is that it tries to deal with economic realities that the original scrupulously avoided. The apartment that Arthur blanches at is as good as most Americans can afford, and we know damn well that fate isn't going to deposit $750 million in our laps. Arthur symbolizes happy-hour nonsense -- making him sober up is like having Santa Claus decide that nobody deserves his &%#(^@ presents any more. Arthur 2: On the Rocks isn't a disease or anything, but the magic sure didn't strike twice.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Arthur & Arthur 2: On the Rocks is a handsome transfer of both films. The photography for the second picture is in a way an improvement (better camera stock?) but lacks the first picture's soft elegance. Interestingly, Ms. Minnelli is cute in the first picture but looks even more attractive in the second. A woman or a man who analyzes such things could express the difference better than I -- is she slimmed down, or what? Both features are encoded on the same side of one Blu-ray disc. If the sequel drags, one obvious reason is that it's fifteen minutes longer than the original, despite the presence of celebrity editor Michael Kahn. Both pictures have music by Burt Bacharach, instead of tapping the great talent of Dudley Moore -- listen to his sensational score for Bedazzled sometime. Arthur's theme "The Best That You Can Do" is a gang effort by Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, Christopher Cross and Peter Allen, performed by Christopher Cross. The song was almost as big a hit as the movie itself.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Arthur & Arthur 2: On the Rocks Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.