Beyond providing an unflinching look at what happens to those caught between the moon and New York City, the 1981 comedy Arthur gave veteran comic actor Dudley Moore one of the best roles of his career as a drunken playboy cackling his way through a search for love. Though the movie—the single directorial effort from veteran television writer Steve Gordon, who died the following year—is uneven, Moore sells the performance with the sadness resting just behind the surface of his bleary eyes. Russell Brand steps into the role of Arthur Bach for the 2011 remake, and while it’s one of the more reined-in performances of his short, busy big-screen career, Brand’s unvarying onscreen persona just doesn’t do soulful. Any gestures toward maturity or pleas for understanding feel like part of the act.
It isn’t a bad act in all contexts. Brand can be funny in supporting parts. But he doesn’t yet know how to command a front-and-center role, and Arthur groans with the effort from its first moments, which find Brand’s exuberant playboy donning a Batman costume and commanding his put-upon chauffeur (Luis Guzmán) to drive him through the streets of Manhattan in the Batmobile. Not letting a mere arrest stop his partying, he turns the evening into a wild debauch, letting his commanding, lifelong nanny (Helen Mirren, stepping into the John Gielgud role) sweep in to pick up the pieces, as always. Predictably, Mirren is the best part of the film, providing a calm center to anchor the antics, including those that follow once Brand caves to the pressure of his cold mother (Geraldine James) and proposes to a pushy, ambitious heiress (Jennifer Garner). But could a chance meeting with a working-class tour guide (Greta Gerwig) make him change his mind even if it means losing his fortune?
Director Jason Winer (a Modern Family veteran making his feature debut) takes his time lurching to the answer, filling the spaces not already occupied by broad performances with too much unearned sentiment and too few laughs. Sluggish and shapeless, Arthur has a few nice moments—such as a date at an emptied-out Grand Central—but they’re overwhelmed by Brand’s braying and Garner’s embarrassing turn as a high-class shrew. Yet for all the obvious effort of those performances, the film around them ends up feeling unforgivably bland. It’s a contemporary rom-com nothing dressed up in ill-fitting screwball clothes.