“Arthur” Flops Badly

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Eminent literary theorist Fredric Jameson observed that “pastiche” is, like its conceptual cousin, parody, “the imitation of a peculiar or unique style,” only without parody’s satirical edge and subversive irony. It is, he claimed, “blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humour,” and it is, furthermore, a cornerstone of postmodernist cultural production.

And so it is that Jason Winer’s remake of the 1981 Steve Gordon comedy “Arthur” – the story of a forever-young inebriate caught between a forced marriage that would keep him wealthy and true love that would make him a pauper – stumbles into American cinemas. A stunted, feature-length commercial unforgivably devoid of pathos, Winer’s “Arthur” is one of the more foul examples of postmodernist cynicism to come down the pike in some time.

Russell Brand (as the eponymous Arthur Bach) plays an unimaginably wealthy, alcoholic Briton whom we are to watch grow up, learn lessons, etc. etc. etc … Unlike Brand’s rock-star persona Aldous Snow from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek,” Arthur Bach is so P.G. and P.C., with no grit or darkness to speak of, that he is out-filthed by young children in at least two scenes – with all the comic force of a war crime.

Compared to Dudley Moore’s Arthur, the lightning-quick, cackling mess that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in 1982, Brand is an embarrassment. As much as I want to like Russell Brand, he is a personality, not an actor, despite all his well-intentioned pretenses to the contrary.

Brand’s love interest, and counterpart in thespian dilettantism, Greta Gerwig, steps into Liza Minelli’s shoes as the commoner from Queens who captures Arthur’s heart. The “organic” qualities of Gerwig’s acting, her ability to seem like she is, at best, a poorly-trained actress inexplicably in a major motion picture, ring hollow opposite Brand’s (distractingly uneven) affected silliness.

If it were only this central romance that fell flat, the film might be passable, but a vast web of stupid decisions behind the camera and poor performances before the camera hurt the legacy of the original more than the 1988 sequel, “Arthur 2: On the Rocks.”

The decision to make Arthur’s father a mother (Geraldine James) and butler a nanny (Helen Mirren) destroys the story at the most elemental level. The Oedipal tension at the heart of the original – Arthur is a grown child insofar as he never had a mother and never challenged his father; by refusing the wishes of his father and of his fatherly butler in order to couple with the matronly Liza Minelli, he reaches the dénouement of the complex and the film’s narrative arc – is frustratingly absent in the remake. Instead, Arthur has a long series of mothers, and the story languishes as each fails to compel anything resembling character development.

Where the original embraced and lampooned the excesses of the super-wealthy, in ways that could tickle even the sternest Marxist, the remake attempts several pathetic apologies for telling a billionaire’s story during a recession. The opening sequence, which ends with Arthur and his driver, Bitterman (Luis Guzman), destroying Wall Street’s famous charging bull statue with the Batmobile, sets the tone.

The cure for wealth, it turns out, is one part pop cultural irreverence and two parts postmillennial asceticism, as Arthur turns to AA and running the charity wing of Bach Worldwide (these are meant to show that Arthur has grown, but he has only grown into a righteous bore). Arthur’s arranged fiancée, Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), on the other hand, is the ruthless nouveau-riche daughter of a wild Pittsburgh construction magnate (Nick Nolte) who wants to bolster his place in the world with some old-money respectability.

Irony of capitalist ironies, the film establishes a most peculiar moral hierarchy as it concerns wealth. The rags-to-riches Johnsons are villains, the riches-to-more-riches Bachs are ambivalent heroes, and the rags-to-rags Quinn family (Gerwig and widower father) are noble peasants. Hard work, in the world of the film, is only commendable if you’re content to stay poor.

Now, I have already briefly mentioned some of the big-name actors in supporting roles. Without fail, each is perfectly forgettable from Garner’s shrill, sociopathic femme-financial to Guzman’s depressing imbecile-sidekick-thing.

Finally, there is New York City. The city that was permanently enshrouded in grime and gloom in the early 1980s is now bright and spotless (and not only in “Arthur”). It seems that in the wake of Rudy Giuliani’s violent campaign to clean up the city, the Big rotten Apple has been spit-shined into a parody of its former self. Or, more accurately, the city (like “Arthur” itself) has tried to take something as innately deplorable as a stolen island (or a billionaire for that matter) and make it vacuously endearing – a blank parody; pastiche.

Rating: 1/5 Stars