Four years ago, Greta Gerwig was everywhere, but only visible to those paying attention. In 2007, Gerwig was the precious lead in Joe Swanberg’s microbudgeted comedy “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” a film released when Swanberg and several other directors were lumped together into a shakily defined “mumblecore” movement. It was a surge of lo-fi, cliquish productivity by a group of close-knit filmmakers and “Hannah” epitomized it, since Gerwig’s character becomes the object of desire for two men, played by fellow mumblecore auteurs Mark Duplass and Andrew Bujalski.
Mumblecore was on everyone’s mind with a suddenness that took even its contributing members by surprise. The year after “Hannah” premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Gerwig appeared in “Baghead,” directed by Mark Duplass with his brother Jay, in addition to Mary Bronstein’s discomfiting drama “Yeast” and Swanberg’s brooding break-up saga “Nights and Weekends,” where she shared a credit as co-director. All three movies showed up at SXSW in unison. As mumblecore — which basically referred to plotless, improvised narratives made cheaply by young white people who knew each other — assumed a false currency in the media, Gerwig was anointed as its queen.
Now Gerwig has moved into the mainstream with “Arthur,” a remake of the 1981 romantic comedy starring Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli. It features Gerwig opposite foppish Brit sensation Russell Brand, was produced by Warner Bros. for many millions of dollars and hits theaters around the country this weekend. In the weeks leading up to its release, Gerwig has been the subject of many defaced subway posters and trailers viewed by millions.
Coupled with a bit part in the Ashton Kutcher-Natalie Portman vehicle “No Strings Attached,” the release of “Arthur” marks the next big step in Gerwig’s career, following her central role last year in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” Although “Greenberg” paired her with Ben Stiller, it was still a small movie mainly seen by arthouse audiences, whereas “Arthur” caters to the masses. Has Gerwig sold out or have the studios bought in? Read on.
In light of the deplorable track record for Hollywood remakes, “Arthur” is actually a fairly serviceable return to the genially funny traits of the original and borrows some of its best moments. Once again, the title character begins as a sophomoric drunk, bored with the magnificent fortune into which he has been born. This time, it’s his petulant mother — rather than the snobbish father of the original — who gives Arthur an ultimatum on his playboy lifestyle: Marry power-hungry heiress Susan (Jennifer Garner) or lose the family fortune. Arthur reluctantly agrees until he randomly meets blue-collar Queens resident Naomi (Gerwig) and falls for her, which leads him to reevaluate his priorities.
Magnificently shot to take advantage of New York City iconography, “Arthur” is easy on the eyes, intermittently amusing and never downright awful. It’s also, beyond some fancy techniques, nothing special. The likable Brand goes through a naturally predictable transition, mans up and learns to give up the bottle for the woman he loves. Director Jason Winer lands a few solid gags based around Arthur’s absurdly pricey lifestyle, including a memorable bit involving metal underwear and a magnetic bed. Nevertheless, like many remakes, the movie primarily exists to grab the attention of viewers unaware of the original. That’s where Gerwig comes in.
Filling Liza Minnelli’s shoes, Gerwig plays the cool chick, a hip wannabe writer living on a tight budget. The movie relies on her presence, just as the original relied on Minnelli, to provide a scrappy contrast to the rigid luxuries dominating Arthur’s world. Gerwig is game: She plays off Brand’s embodiment of a spoiled brat with quirky charm and even holds her own against Dame Helen Mirren, as the protective housemaid who has been responsible for raising Arthur from infancy.
While Gerwig’s presence holds “Arthur” together, the initial one-sheet for failed to include her, leading many bloggers to the realistic conclusion that the studio deemed her too much of an unknown. In truth, she provides its secret weapon, specifically because her screen persona stems from such a different cinematic terrain.
When Arthur first sees Naomi, delivering an unlicensed tour of Grand Central, he calls her “a radiant stranger,” which sounds about right in this context. As Brand watches her speak of the building’s history, the dialogue goes out of synch and she moves in slow motion. It’s a clichéd effect, but appropriate for her first big scene in front of audiences previously unfamiliar with her face. Those accustomed to Gerwig from her other roles might be more used to seeing her sans heavy make-up and expensive Hollywood lighting, two ingredients here (along with 35mm film) that essentially commercialize her typically naturalistic appearance. But Gerwig’s credible self-deprecation and adorable uncertainty stay intact, precisely because the character description demands for it. That’s the entire coup behind mumblecore hitting the mainstream: By going against the grain, Gerwig fits right in.
Gerwig’s appearance in “Arthur” smooths over some of the rougher aspects of her performance history, particularly the nudity. The Q&A following the 2008 premiere of “Nights and Weekends” was among the more awkward in festival history, given that audiences had just watched Swanberg and Gerwig writhe about a Manhattan hotel room in their birthday suits for the movie’s prolonged (ahem) climax. Nobody bares all in “Arthur”; in fact, during the most enchanting scene, when Brand’s character clears out Grand Central so he can take her there for a private dinner date, she announces, “I’m not getting naked.” Indeed: Not every staple of mumblecore can survive the transition to Hollywood.
Mumblecore may persist as an idea, but it burned out quickly. By late 2008, the perception of a systematic “movement” in independent film reached a breaking point. Save for the free publicity, the participating filmmakers didn’t care for the term. The word stuck around, but its founders spread out. As if to underscore that point, Ti West’s 2009 low-budget horror effort “House of the Devil” included a scene in which Gerwig, in a supporting role, got her head blown off by a psychopath — a symbolic act marking the end of a new wave that never really gelled.
However, if mumblecore’s indie bubble burst, Hollywood used Gerwig to reconstruct it. Imported to the faux indie charm school epitomized by Zooey Deschanel, Gerwig is now readily marketable, as even Arthur realizes when he creates a specially designed Pez dispenser that resembles her head. “As soon as I saw you,” he says, “I knew I wanted to eat candy out of your neck.” Audiences at the screening I attended giggled along with her. Awkwardly positioned for years, Gerwig’s mumblecore brand is secure in a world that has plans for it.
criticWIRE grade: B-