Thursday, 21 April 2011

In memoriam: "Arthur" (1981-2011)

One of the reasons I was resistant to the (generally astute) stand-up of Russell Brand: that flouncy delivery, which always seemed to me that of a personality keener to be noticed, to be famous, to attract his own adoring cult, than it was to be funny. (When Brand took over presenting duties on a Big Brother spin-off show, it was a perfect fit.) After a couple of warm-up movie vehicles (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek) and a Hollywood power marriage, that moment has now come to pass, and even with the momentary pause granted by Sachsgate - an incident in which Brand's neo-celebrity heartlessness, his covert desire to get one (leg) over everybody on his way up, was first brought to our attention - the impression remains of a stratospheric rise to international prominence. You might call him the Justin Bieber of winky jokes.

Can it really have only been four years since Brand turned up, cap in hand, for shooting on that dreadful St. Trinian's remake? Well, yes: the rise has been that quick, although - with the big brass ring (or Katy Perry's boobs) in sight - more calculation than thought appears to have gone into Brand's global takeover plans. Consider, for starters, Arthur, a remake of the once-popular Dudley Moore vehicle about a bibulous billionaire forced into a society wedding to preserve his fortune. Yes, the title offered a certain degree of (pardon the pun) brand recognition, albeit for cinemagoers some way beyond the 18-30 demographic, but the original, a Reaganite romp comprehensively lampooned by Trading Places and Brewster's Millions, was fairly thin and tatty to begin with - a remake could only ever result in a marginal improvement, or a complete stinker.

As it happens, Arthur 2011 is awful. Precisely nothing about it works, and I doubt we'll see a worse performance by a leading man this year. Brand was by some distance the best thing about Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and weirdly winning in the unofficial sequel that was Greek. This one makes its first terrible creative decision - a decision that illustrates exactly the infantilisation of so much modern American cinema, where executives are obsessed with the buzzwords "young" and "hip" - in turning the main character into an attention-deficient naif who watches Road Runner cartoons in the bathtub and treats the real object of his affections to a candlelit meal of Pez sweets, removed from the dispenser. This is the manchild of the New American Comedy taken to an almost pathological degree, and Brand plays him as though he's received a serious blow to the head. He could be downing vodka; he could just be hyped up on Ribena and morphine.

At all points, Russell is 12A-bland, skittering away from any of those dark, bastardly, unashamedly adult notes of misanthropy and self-loathing Adam Sandler dragged up for his unrepentant billionaire in Funny People. We could be watching a spoiled toddler, which may be what being a Hollywood star is all about these days, but it feels like a fundamental betrayal of everything Russell Brand once stood for, if indeed Russell Brand ever really stood for anything. Perhaps toning his act down for a family-friendly certificate - a move that certainly hasn't made Eddie Murphy or Steve Martin any poorer in recent years - is a deliberate bid to attract the highest possible number of impressionable acolytes and devotees; see also, on this point, Brand's voicing of the Easter bunny in Hop. I've heard of brand dominance, but this is getting creepy - and aren't we entitled to a couple of decades of wild-and-crazy Russell Brand before he cashes in in this particular fashion?

What's particularly regrettable about Arthur is the knock-on effect this wholesale watering-down has on Brand's co-stars. As the Manhattan tour guide Arthur loses his heart to, the spiky, idiosyncratic mumblecore heroine Greta Gerwig suffers more than most, fitted with a mainstream-movie makeover (haircut, spray tan, lipstick) that looks all kinds of wrong on her, and is typical of the misguided packaging at work here. Jennifer Garner is just too nice to play a rich bitch without depth, and utterly undeserving of the sequence that asks her to impersonate a cat while wearing a low-cut corset; and there's a truly weird appearance from Nick Nolte, who really does appear plastered (and plastinated), as Arthur's putative father-in-law. As for Helen Mirren - drafted in to add a little class, in what was John Gielgud's forthright butler role - this, more so than RED or The Tempest, proves a severe test of her Teflon reputation. I guess once you've got Caligula on your CV, nothing else is likely to get your honours revoked, but Mirren doesn't even get Gielgud's "humorous swearing" schtick to play with; she merely withers, in all the wrong ways.

Given that the film is such a flagrant exercise in positioning - executive-produced by Brand and his agent Nik Linnen - it's almost a moot point as to whether it's funny or not. As it is, Arthur manages to be colossally unamusing, despite the presence of various funny people. Director Jason Winer, as responsible as anyone for making TV's Modern Family the triumph it has been, is but a mere pawn in Brand's power games, limited to the minor subversion of sneaking a billboard for his own small-screen series into the background of one set-up. The writer Peter Baynham, one of Sacha Baron Cohen's collaborators on Borat, keeps coming up with scenes you just can't believe a scribe of his calibre would care to write (perhaps he didn't): tooth-rotting romance, some witless farce with Garner stuck under a magnetic piano (?!), lots of last-reel moralising to send us away confident Arthur's drinking is A Bad Thing. (Frankly, even Peter, Baynham's sad-sack persona from Lee and Herring's Fist of Fun, wouldn't stoop to rescue such ropey shit from a Balham garage's bargain bin.)

Thus it is that the whole enterprise pursues a lazy, notionally feelgood vibe - nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to alarm the horses, or offend Andrew Sachs - that necessitates the taking of a full two hours to get Arthur into rehab. (Yes, rehab: Brand's personality is such that it even feels obliged to stamp itself over his character's happy ending.) Like most comedies that cleave this close to cold, hard cash, the film has no heart or soul, but it also has no atmosphere to speak of - you end up not wanting to laugh, because you cannot be sure there'll be any more air coming along to replenish your lungs - and no brain from the word go: only the dimmest Warner Bros. executive could have been persuaded this is the right time to try and get audiences to cheer for a billionaire who ends up getting exactly what he wants from life - no matter that he's being played by the hip young Russell Brand.

Arthur opens nationwide tomorrow.

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