By David Germain/AP Movie Writer
Put an infinite number of studio executives in a room, and sooner or later one will green-light a truly good remake of a classic film.
Sadly, Russell Brand’s “Arthur’’ is not it, although it is at least a benign bit of fluff that should please younger audiences unfamiliar with the 1981 comedy, even if purists who adore the original may hate this version.
“Arthur’’ is respectful of and faithful to Dudley Moore’s original; maybe too much so. The filmmakers tweak things here and there to modernize the story and fit the persona of drunken, debauched, billionaire man-child onto Brand (not surprisingly, it is no stretch for the British comic with the party-boy past).
Yet the alterations are mostly cosmetic, including the big one, changing the sex of Arthur’s stern but loving guardian Hobson from a man (John Gielgud as Moore’s butler in the original) to a woman (Helen Mirren as Brand’s nanny).
Despite Mirren’s estimable presence, the new “Arthur’’ has little of its own to offer. It is the same story, told with much less heart: Rich boy meets poor girl, rich boy’s mom orders him into a financially acceptable arranged marriage or be cut off from his fortune, rich boy continues to dally with poor girl on the side while trying to determine if he can live as a pauper.
Like almost every remake, the movie has no reason to exist, other than to cash in with today’s fans, few of whom would bother to check out the far-superior original from ancient times of 30 years past.
Making his big-screen debut, director Jason Winer (TV’s “Modern Family’’) and screenwriter Peter Baynham (a writing collaborator of Sacha Baron Cohen) stuff “Arthur’’ with too many cute, cloying moments.
The gags crafted to showcase the hedonism and abandon of Arthur are not funny (dressing himself as Batman and his chauffeur as Robin, then tearing up Manhattan’s streets in his own Batmobile, or handing out cash from an ATM to strangers and declaring the recession over. No great laughs here).
And while Mirren and Brand, who co-starred in the actress’ gender-bending take on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest’’ last year, form a pleasant surrogate mother-and-son relationship, it’s a soft and mushy one, overloaded with sentiment and lacking the bite that Gielgud brought to his Academy Award-winning role.
As Arthur’s dragon-lady fiancee, Jennifer Garner is the worst thing about the new version, closely followed by Nick Nolte in a few short, growling scenes as her menacing dad.
Too kittenish to make any impact as a predatory, social-climbing executive at the billion-dollar trust run by Arthur’s family, Garner fades away alongside Brand and his antics.
As Naomi, the penniless New York City tour guide with whom Arthur falls in love, indie-film darling Greta Gerwig is sweet but tame, the fierce edges she showed in last year’s “Greenberg’’ smoothed and smothered by big-budget blandness.
Unlike Moore’s perpetually plastered Arthur, Brand’s eventually is forced to confront his alcoholism. A noble bit of intervention in real life, but a dubious distraction here, steering “Arthur’’ from romantic farce to tepid self-help chronicle.
Considering the crudeness of many remakes, this “Arthur’’ could have turned out much worse. It could have done without the mediocre end-credits cover of Christopher Cross’ Oscar-winning “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’’ from the 1981 film, but its inclusion certainly is not the worst that Hollywood might have done to “Arthur.’’
Meantime, that infinite number of studio executives remains busy green-lighting remakes. One of these days …