by Richard von Busack
A FRIEND SAYS that Russell Brand is his idea of a Mr. Hyde who has permanently lost his Dr. Jekyll. In this above-all unfunny remake of the 1981 comedy, Brand plays a wacky drunken billionaire in Manhattan who covets the one thing money can’t buy, a girl from Queens (Greta Gerwig). Meanwhile, Arthur’s tyrant mother is insisting that he marry a vicious heiress (Jennifer Garner).
It’s easy to understand why this movie doesn’t work just by looking at why the original did. To begin with, the 1981 Arthur wasn’t a vehicle for Dudley Moore. In this remake, Brand appears in almost every scene. Drawling a Jack Sparrow accent, the actor is well built; he’s long and tall and wears the expensive clothes well. But he has a heavy side. Even if Brand is playing off his own reputation as a celebrity wastrel, there’s no comedic poetry in his motion. In Brand’s OK big scene, when he tells off a church in session, you see just how much physical comedy is missing in this movie.
As the hostile but lovable nanny, John Gielgud did the heavy lifting in the original. Helen Mirren, who knows more about how to play cinema than Gielgud, tries to share the burden of the heart-wringing scenes through sheer recessiveness, and Brand can’t keep up his end. This covertness pays off in Mirren’s best moment: a look of secret satisfaction after she taunts her grown-up charge into standing up for himself. Even if Garner is painful to watch trying to do comedy, I have no complaints about Naomi, the poor girl in the story. Gerwig’s slow-on-the-uptake reacting and summery wardrobe are delightful. She’s the first actress to look really pretty in one of those stingy-brim fedoras the girls insist on wearing now.
Nick Nolte provides some solid support as the seething wealthy father-in-law to be. If Brand has facial features like Karloff, it’s Nolte who moves like Frankenstein, and he’s talking in a low wheeze these days, a few keys below Tom Waits. Director Jason Winer, a TV vet, prefers the one-thing-after-another style of direction. One joke, about a large diamond being “an ice rink for mice,” sums up the limits of the plot, which seems just about that wide and that deep.