Hollywood finally figured out what to do with kinky British comedian Russell Brand, and it turned up in the unlikeliest of places: A remake of a 30-year-old romantic comedy starring Dudley Moore.
Brand, best known for his hedonism-embracing rocker Aldous Snow in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” combines a verbose patter of self-effacing commentary with the hair and dress code of Keith Richards circa 1975. He has often rubbed American audiences the wrong way, though he’s a big star across the pond.
I recently heard an interview Brand did with NPR’s Terry Gross and was struck by how thoughtful and well-spoken he came across. Perhaps that paved the way to embracing his charming performance as Arthur, an impish millionaire man-boy who drinks only well-aged booze but has defiantly resisted any maturation of his own.
It is, of course, Dudley Moore’s signature role from the 1981 film written and directed by Steve Gordon who, alas, died young the year after it was released. I admit I resisted the idea of this remake — and by such young hands, too. This is the first feature film for director Jason Winer.
But the two films, while nearly identical in plot, are largely divergent in their tone and humor. Brand creates a distinctive character based on his own persona rather than trying to mimic Moore. He is by turns hilarious and touching, with an inner core of sweetness we haven’t seen from him before.
Put it this way: If Aldous Snow — also seen in “Get Him to the Greek,” the quasi-sequel to “Sarah Marshall” — was defined by a complete lack of guile in obscuring his loathsome core, then Brand’s Arthur uses the trappings of the spoiled rich playboy to conceal the fact that he’s really gentle and vulnerable inside.
No doubt you’ve also heard about the film’s big casting twist — putting Helen Mirren in the role of Hobson, the stern servant played by John Gielgud in the original movie. Hobson’s job, indeed her very life, is given over to managing Arthur’s drunken debauches and steering him ever so subtly — and usually ineffectively — toward the light. Mirren turns out to be a grand slam, allowing a little bit of maternal warmth to shine through the relationship.
The basic story is unchanged. Arthur, a continual embarrassment to the Bach family, is ordered to marry a respectable woman by his powerful and emotionally distant mother (Geraldine James) or be cut off from the vast familial fortune. He reluctantly agrees but then meets a dazzling poor girl who steals his heart away.
Naomi is played by Greta Gerwig, an indie film star who occasionally pops up in mainstream movies. She has a radiant smile and some smarts, too, and is initially resistant to Arthur’s overtures. She eventually melts, though, after he makes some pretty extravagant overtures for their first date.
Jennifer Garner plays Susan, the all-too-wrong fiancée for Arthur. She’s the hard-charging daughter of a manly-man construction magnate (Nick Nolte) and sees Arthur as part fix-it project and part keys to the CEO chair of the Bach conglomerate.
The biggest compliment I can give to the new “Arthur” is that it made me forget about the old one, or at least not mind that they remade it. Rather than a bland retread, Brand gives us a thoroughly funny, charming and irresistible character.