Arguably one of the key sentiments of 2023 came in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, when our heroine comes to the ground-breaking conclusion that she ‘doesn’t want to be the idea, but to HAVE the idea.’ In a man’s, man’s world, that’s a revolutionary sentiment, that women shouldn’t just be the pretty face of the message, but should have the same status as men when it comes to the responsibility for creating the message itself. Of course, some errant minds immediately drifted to probably the last thing that Gerwig would want to be reminded of, her ill-advised starring role opposite 2023’s man of the moment (in the worst possible way) Russell Brand in the 2011 reboot of Arthur. Brand is getting plenty of exposure elsewhere, but let’s just wrap our heads around Arthur, a film that typifies everything about our baby-man-pandering media that Greta Gerwig currently stands against.
If Dudley Moore played a philandering, just about likable drunk in the original film, then an update was clearly required. As a heavily-hyped man-child constantly announcing himself with a juvenile view of sex, Brand might have seemed like an obvious choice, although his public aversion to alcohol somewhat ruins that fit to play a character addicted to booze. But a man-child the modern Arthur is, with a billionaires boys club upgrade, crashing his Batmobile into the balls of a golden bull for yuks the opening scene. The dynamics of Steve Gordon’s 1981 comedy are generally deemed not fit for purpose here, and so John Gielgud’s butler is reworked as Helen Mirren as a “Mary Poppins with a menopause’ nanny named Hobson who has taken care of Arthur since he was a boy, and is somehow responsible for the infantilized dinky-winky booky-wooky sexuality that we’re meant to find adorable but which wears thin from the outset. ‘In fairness they told me they were 19!’ quips Arthur as his nanny chases some single-use girls out of his bedroom, before reflecting.’ Who is this lovable rogue with a god-given gift for staving off death with fun?…which law prevents this radiant stranger from finding the magical in the mundane?’ Who indeed.
A talented writer on his uppers here, Peter Baynham’s script is jammed full of such specious excuses/reasons why we should find Arthur’s juvenile behaviour amusing, but in Brand’s hands, it’s never less than distressing. ‘Hello Vivian, I remember when I used to live in your womb,’ Arthur pointlessly says to his mother (Geraldine James) before romancing NYC tour guide Naomi (Greta Gerwig) by comparing her to a Pez dispenser and saying ‘I wanted to eat candy bricks out of your neck hole.’ There’s product placement for everything Star Wars to Evander Holyfield, with Jennifer Garner degrading herself as Arthur’s pushy bethrothed and Nick Nolte acting out audience fantasies by pushing Brand tongue-first into a circular saw. ‘It’s not what it looks like, unless it looks like a cat raping a horse’ quips Brand at one point, but it probably is exactly what it looks like. Even Baynham gives up on trying to make Brand’s persona amusing, filling the rest of the film with the kind of celebrity lookalike jokes that were spent by the end of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005.
With nothing else working, 2011’s Arthur falls back on unearned sentiment piled on top of unearned sentiment, with Hobson getting sick on cue and Arthur taking Naomi for dinner in a deserted Grand Central station while the original Christopher Cross song swells up on the soundtrack. Jason Winer’s film pretty much ended Brand’s career as an A lister, sending him to a career of support roles, yet somehow still a studio-endorsed kiddies entertainer by the time of 2016’s animation Trolls. Fortunately Gerwig bounced back with a famous success with Barbie, but for Brand, this really was the best that he could do, and was followed by an escape to social media and the temporary respite of claiming that everything and everyone is in conspiracy against him, something that this film demostrates is quite the opposite of what transpired.