Is there a less opportune time to remake "Arthur," the 1981 Dudley Moore comedy about a billionaire alcoholic who parties his way through life? In case anybody connected with this film hadn't noticed, we're up to our nostrils in a recession. Also, drunk jokes aren't exactly the laff riots they used to be in the old Dean Martin days (if they ever were). For timing this off you'd have to go back to "Confessions of a Shopaholic," another tone-deaf – or zeitgeist-blind – comedy.
Russell Brand has been recruited for this "reinvention," and his presence in the film confirms my belief that a little of him goes a long, long way.
As Arthur Bach, sole heir to his family's megabillion foundation, Brand spends most of the movie slurring his words and sashaying off kilter. We're supposed to find this spoiled man-child adorable even though he's never without his flask, drives drunk, and stocks his suite at New York's Pierre Hotel with a passing parade of leggy gold diggers.
To keep him in line and uphold the foundation's image, a marriage is arranged between Arthur and Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), a business executive whose corporate ambitions and no-nonsense personality are supposed to guarantee the foundation's, and Arthur's, future. If he refuses to wed her, he loses his billions.
It seems a bit cruel to cast Garner, who exudes charm, in such a charmless role. Her opposite number is the fresh-faced woman-child Naomi (Greta Gerwig), an unlicensed tour guide who takes care of her ailing father and wants to write children's books. Spoiler alert: Arthur falls in love with her.
The role of Arthur's butler, played to a fine finish by John Gielgud in the original movie, has been recast as a nanny. This at least gives Helen Mirren a chance to tone up the proceedings with her spot-on line readings and flinty hauteur. Nick Nolte, as Susan's burly father, offers up his amusingly growly presence, if all too briefly.
But back to the zeitgeist thing. It's not necessary, I suppose, for a movie about a billionaire to be in lock-step with the times, but couldn't the director, Jason Winer, and his screenwriter, Peter Baynham, at least have made more than passing reference to our current muck? When Arthur is reminded early on that the country is in a deep recession, he responds with amazement, then unloads an ATM for a cash giveaway to passersby. As far as topical references go, that's about it.
I don't buy the notion that this is all a lavish fantasy to cheer us in troubled times. It's too clueless and condescending for that. "Let them eat cake" has been modernized to "Let them eat ATM machines." Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for alcohol use throughout, sexual content, language, and some drug references.)