Let's start with a fact. The 1981 film Arthur is a middling piece of studio comedy, buoyed (in the first half) by an unexpectedly effervescent performance by Dudley Moore and delightfully dour deadpan turn by Sir John Gielgud as his butler.
But it's hardly a classic (unless you saw it when you were 13 and found it to be the height of sophistication).
Gielgud won an Oscar for the film (a case where Oscar repaid an actor for an entire career) and the glutinous theme song by Christopher Cross took the award for best song. It's still a tune that can send a certain generation of people leaping to change the radio station when it turns up - even if you're the type that listens to gloopy soft-rock stations. (And, no doubt, I'm dating myself by even assuming anyone still actually listens to music on a car radio.)
But to get back to my point: The original Arthur was a mediocre film with a few laughs.
Not a classic.
And yet it looks like the model of wit compared to the remake that waddles into theaters this week. What is this movie's reason for being? None are obvious.
If anything, this movie should put a nail in the coffin of Russell Brand's career as a movie comic because, well, the guy's just not that funny. Particularly not when he assays an entire role in that high, whiny, little-boy voice that he uses here. I've seen him do stand-up and that didn't make me laugh. He's really only amusing in small doses, as in the scattered skits in which he appeared when he hosted Saturday Night Live or in a smaller supporting role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
This reworking of the original Arthur tries to inoculate itself against charges of insensitivity right off the bat, despite its depiction of a drunk billionaire who burns through money frivolously. How? By having him give some of it away early on, after being asked about whether his brand of conspicuous waste is in bad taste during a recession. And, unlike the first film, his drinking eventually leads him to a 12-step program. Again, it feels like a sop, rather than a sincere concern about being accused of making a movie that portrays drunkenness as a giddy, feel-good state of being (which the original film did - and really, when was the last time you saw a movie about a lovable alcoholic?).
This film also takes his true love - a girl from Queens named Naomi - and transforms her from the kleptomaniac Liza Minnelli played in the original film into a would-be children's author. Her transgression? She conducts unlicensed tours of Grand Central Terminal. Blah blah blah.
This film even takes the butler and turns him into a nanny, played by Oscar-winner Helen Mirren. She has the film's few funny lines - and boy does she have to work to wring the humor out of the bland writing of Peter Baynham. But then there's the whole icky mommy vibe between Hobson and Arthur and the neediness that Brand brings to the role. Again, not funny.
It's always disheartening when Hollywood takes a great comedy and remakes it poorly. It's even worse when it takes a mediocre movie and remakes it into something dispiritingly witless like Arthur.
It's enough to make me reconsider my review of that last Ashton Kutcher-Natalie Portman fiasco, which looks brilliant in comparison.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine