The posters for Arthur promise to introduce you to the world's only lovable billionaire, a tall order even before you know that billionaire is played by Russell Brand, the British stand-up comedian who has been presented to us in the last few years as a movie star without much evidence of his actual appeal. Fresh off ninety minutes of grimacing at Brand's high-pitched voice in the animated film Hop, I walked into Arthur with teeth gritted, unable to comprehend how a movie starring Brand as a drunken, profligate playboy could be anything but excruciating.
And it was, for the first half hour or so, as Brand gallivanted around New York City in the Batmobile or the Back to the Future DeLorean, a lisping Luis Guzman at his side as a trusty butler and Helen Mirren indulging him as his nanny/surrogate mother Hobson. Arthur, as you probably know by now, is a remake of an Oscar-nominated 1981 Dudley Moore film that was only deemed a classic when word got around that Brand wanted to redo it; once again Arthur is forced into a marriage of convenience with a high-society hellion (Jennifer Garner), and once again his childlike enthusiasms for toys and booze and women persistently get in the way of everyone else's plans.
Just when it started to seem Arthur the movie would be as indulgent to Brand's manic comedic schtick as the characters are to Arthur the person, in comes Greta Gerwig, the luminous, naturalistic star of indies like Greenberg and Hannah Takes The Stairs. In a role that was a good-hearted shoplifter when Liza Minnelli played it, Gerwig is Naomi, a goofy and generous unlicensed tour guide who is immediately in step with Arthur when they meet cute at Grand Central Station, and seems blithely unconcerned with Arthur's wealth, his excessive drinking, or much of anything really. She's such a dream girl she can't even be bothered to google this famous millionaire, where she'd inevitably learn that he's engaged to another woman. She's the kind of girl too busy illustrating children's books and taking care of her elderly dad to think of these things; what, you don't know anybody like that?
Yes, Naomi's romance with Arthur is a fantasy, but between their strolls through a sparkling Central Park and the fact that every cop seems to know both of them by name, the movie never really pretends otherwise. Gerwig doesn't single-handedly save the movie but she does seem to have a calming influence on those around her, bringing out the best particularly in Brand and Mirren. The problems of Arthur aren't in the by-the-numbers Hollywood mechanics of the plot, but how clumsily they often come together; Garner's ambitious would-be-heiress morphs from a moderate alpha-female to violent lunatic with no explanation, and though Nick Nolte is nicely threatening as her macho dad, he's forced to go to ridiculous lengths to intimidate his prospective son-in-law. There's an "everybody's sad montage" at precisely the moment in the third act when you expect it, and though Arthur is a story about tough choices and growing up, there's no actual drama in a billionaire's decision to give up wealth in the name of love.
Director Jason Winer, a veteran of TV's note-perfect Modern Family, stumbles early in his feature debut by pitching the comedy too high, throwing jokes at the wall and giving into Brand's shrieking, loose-limbed comedy. Once Arthur himself calms down the film does too, settling into an amiable and predictable rhythm that gives breathing room for Arthur's strongest elements: the vulgar rapport between Brand and Mirren, some truly funny one-liners, and an evocation of a glimmering New York City that gives us all the charmed perspective of a millionaire.
As for Brand, continuing his efforts to move from scene-stealer to leading man, he gets toward some real depth and likability near the end of Arthur, even though it's all due to some painfully transparent plot mechanics. The big surprise for me in this new Arthur wasn't that it got away, just barely, with giving us a lovable billionaire, but that he was played by Brand, an actor I was ready to write off entirely. He won't get an Oscar nomination like Dudley Moore did for the original film, but despite all the odds against him he's proved himself as a winning movie presence, which might be even better.