What is Hollywood going to do with Russell Brand? Right now, it appears roles are being tailored to suit his particular (and dubious) gifts, resulting in a series of minor variations on his own persona, but for how long can a screen career survive on this strategy when the man in question is such a limited performer? In terms of live action films, Brand was at his most tolerable in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where his more measured supporting role meshed well with the other actors, but it was always inevitable that a film like Arthur would be written for Brand, and that it would ultimately expose his shortcomings. The film is a remake of the much loved by some (and mostly forgotten by others) 1981 comedy in which Dudley Moore played the lovably soused and feckless heir to a huge fortune. That picture largely succeeded on the back of Moore's charm, which is an asset that this new version lacks. All Brand has to work with is his familiar shtick, and let me tell you that shtick grows very tiresome indeed when placed at the centre of a film that runs for an inexplicable 110 minutes.
The 2011 Arthur, directed by newcomer Jason Winer (although it could be anybody) sticks closely to the template of the original film. Brand's Arthur is still a reckless playboy who delights in throwing away his money but who risks seeing his funds cut off if he doesn't marry the woman his family have set up for him. In this case, that woman is Susan (Jennifer Garner, stranded in an excruciating role), a sex-mad shrew who has her eyes on Arthur's $950 million inheritance. He, however, is more interested in Naomi (Greta Gerwig), who seems a much better fit for this overgrown child, as she herself is little more than a bundle of nice, fluffy quirks: she writes children's books, she loves cartoons, she wears a candy necklace as a bracelet. The 1981 equivalent of this character was a shoplifting waitress played by Liza Minnelli; in her place we've got an overdose of whimsy.
I like Greta Gerwig, she possesses the kind of naturalness and vivacity that a film like Arthur is crying out for, but she is never given a chance to display it in this cartoonish role. The same can be said for so many of the other actors in this film, all of whom are given a single note to play and no opportunity to spring a surprise on the viewer. Geraldine James (as Arthur's mother) is a cold, heartless bitch; Nick Nolte (as his future father-in-law) growls a lot to no effect; Luis Guzman (as his chauffer) just stands there looking like he's waiting for some direction – any direction – from Winer. The debutant filmmaker's work here is TV-level competent, but he finds it hard to manage the swing between the outlandish comic set-pieces and the insincere scenes of loss and learning that the picture gets bogged down in later on.
One aspect of Arthur works. In the role of Hobson the butler, which won John Gielgud an Oscar, we now have Hobson the nanny, played by Helen Mirren. She finds the right note in her delivery throughout and she actually seems to bring something out of her mostly awkward co-star, with the relationship between Mirren and Brand appearing to be based upon some genuine affection and chemistry. Their scenes together are the best in the film and the ones most likely to draw a few indulgent chuckles; and while Mirren has received praise and awards for many dramatic turns in recent years, her ability to inject some soul into this essentially disposable endeavour may be the greatest testimony to her calibre as an actress.