Love him or loathe him, there’s just no stopping the publicity juggernaut that is Brand at the moment – on both sides of the pond. Or is there? Those (seemingly) loyal to the Oscar-winning 1981 version of Arthur, starring the lovable late Dudley Moore, were especially keen in the US to get the knives out ready for Mr Katy Perry’s debut lead performance in this year’s remake of the same name – and no, voicing a talking Easter bunny in Hop doesn’t count.
Arthur is the story of pampered Brit billionaire and drunk Arthur (Brand) who’s always on the sauce, partying and shirking his responsibilities. He’s threatened with disinheritance if he doesn’t marry the woman his controlling and cold-hearted businesswoman mother, Vivienne (Geraldine James), wants him to – the terrifyingly competitive social climber, Susan (Jennifer Garner). Trouble is, he falls for the wrong girl by sheer accident one day, a cent-less illegal tour guide/wannabe children’s author called Naomi (Greta Gerwig). His only guiding hand in life is ‘surrogate mother’ and nanny figure Hobson (Helen Mirren) who has a love-hate relationship with her man-child charge. So, does he follow his heart or his head?
To be fair on Brand, the US critics’ backlash is rather unwarranted – unless you just can’t stand the man, so wouldn’t even entertain the thought of watching 110 minutes of him. Coming from someone who holds the original film dear to their heart, far from irritate the hell out of you in this, surprisingly, Brand injects a new infectious fun feeling into Arthur. He is the definitive Arthur of the Noughties, a decadent bad boy with too much dosh to squander, and if we’re to believe that reality mirrors fiction (and vice versa), Brand’s past is perfect practice for such a role of petulant over-indulgence and vanity – just think Sachsgate. Plus he’s an ex-addict, so knows the score and can draw on past experience. Indeed, just like Arthur, there’s always a glimmer of raw Brand vulnerability bubbling away below the surface, which keeps the self-depreciating moments more credible. However, he still doesn’t quite touch on the emotional tragedy of Moore’s more compelling performance when he loses Hobson in the story. This could be Brand’s acting inexperience, or the fact that Brand only ends up playing one kind of character – himself.
Never mind Brand, though. There was one major doubt in the mind, before watching this film: Replacing John Gielgud’s gleefully acidic-tongued Hobson with a female character of the same name. Thankfully and unsurprisingly, steadfast Mirren comes up trumps, but dripping in a lot less sarcasm than her predecessor. She absolutely steals the show, and this is evident when Brand has to finish off proceedings at the end by relying on a spot of near-nudity to squeeze more laughs out. And does their on-screen partnership work? It certainly keeps you entertained and in high spirits throughout – and you can easily imagine art imitating life with boss lady clipping any Brand random moments of madness down to size.
As for the other women in Arthur’s life, Garner sounded like an odd casting at first, but is hilarious in her own right and a good match opposite Brand’s larger-than-life persona, as he tries to repel her futile advances as Susan, accumulating in a rather magnetic moment of bedroom madness. Gerwig’s character makes a refreshing change to Liza Minnelli’s gobby Linda Marolla character, Arthur’s love interest in the first film, allowing you to develop more empathy for Naomi as she steps into a whole different universe.
Arthur 2011 would never win the accolades that the 1981 film did (Best Actor for Moore and Best Supporting Actor for Gielgud), but like its protagonist, it does deliver some cheeky laughs that balance out some of its flatter moments. Brand is a big kid at heart, and Mirren takes no prisoners, so casting seems near enough spot on. Therefore, when parts of this film do not work as well, the majority of the blame must lie with the film-making combination of TV director Jason Winer and Borat and Brüno screenwriter Peter Baynham’s adaptation of Steve Gordon’s original story. Or maybe times have changed, what with the banking crisis and the rich just getting richer, this story just comes at a time when things still smart, so the decadent, feel-good feel of the 80s no longer holds true? It’s a bold part to play, and Brand does his best, so here’s a toast to his efforts.