Forgive me for any lack of authority on the new “Arthur” remake, which I haven’t yet seen (if ever I do). Looking at it from a normal, everyday moviegoer, though, I was kind of hoping its marketing wasn’t just a careful avoidance of a touchy issue. I wanted the film to lose the booze. I had assumed, based on the trailers and posters and such that Russell Brand‘s version of Arthur Bach was not the slurring alcoholic that Dudley Moore’s was. Not because I have any moral issue (it’s been more than a decade since I could be considered straight-edge and now do enjoy drinking responsibly) but because I always want remakes to do something new. We already saw the drunken Arthur (and 20 years of parodies of the shtick). How about an Arthur with a coke habit or sex addiction?
I learned through Drew McWeeny’s latest edition of The Big Question at HitFix that Brand’s Arthur is indeed a sloppy sot (McWeeny says the film could be appropriately retitled “Raging Lush”), but the remake also apparently turns the issue into a cause for a kind of social issue film, redeeming the character in the final minutes with rehab and recovery. Those of you hoping for a follow-up rehash of “Arthur 2: On the Rocks” shouldn’t worry, however, because a crafty screenwriter could just have him fall off the wagon. Anyway, McWeeny is not happy with the preachy turn the new “Arthur” takes, as he states here:
The film doesn’t earn that ending. It doesn’t even try. It doesn’t have any interest in painting alcohol as a negative until the moment where they have to do it because it is expected of them. Up to that moment, that precise about-face, “Arthur” makes drinking look like a gas. […] When you see Russell Brand go through his 12-step montage, eventually reaching him beaming about his six-month chip being “his favorite coin of all time,” it’s hard not to roll your eyes.
The way he describes the appeal of the alcoholism for the majority of the film, I’m reminded of Liam McEneaney’s stand-up routine on drug awareness education (“I was never sure if this guy was telling us drugs were bad, or if he was some kind of traveling drug salesman”). And other similar gags. It’s worth noting that, according to one critic, “Arthur” does appear to be advertising a specific brand of alcohol — Maker’s Mark bourbon — so it’s not like the film is completely anti-booze.
So it’s just about the problem with abuse and excess, which makes me wonder if “Arthur” should be more of a commentary on the seemingly out of hand socialite rehab situation. Actually, maybe it is, since I haven’t seen it. Either way, I don’t see a problem with what sounds like a social problem film of the Production Code era only with a self-imposed moral message tacked on since the Hays system is no longer around. Way back when, it was common for Hollywood movies to make criminal and other “wrong” activities look appealing up until the very end, when the gangster or heathen had to be punished.
I see no reason why a modern film can’t take a stance against something in this way, though I guess it’s easy to argue that viewers not expecting a morality play will be annoyed and feel tricked. Not everyone knows Brand himself is a recovering alcoholic, nor do most people expect that might factor into the way his film vehicles are resolved (he’s on record addressing it: “It’s important to see a resolution to the problem of Arthur’s alcoholism.”)
McWeeny also argues that the film’s morality dates it:
There will come a time when we’re on the other side of this behavior and we’ll look at films from this era and that hyper-morality will be one of the things that most clearly dates the films. It’s interesting that his movie “Get Him To The Greek” allowed him to play the character totally off the wagon and unrepentant, but that it also made him seem really sleazy and crappy in its last act. It’s like the only way you’re allowed to like the user is if they renounce it at the last convenient moment.
On a historical context level, I find this to be perfectly acceptable, just as those films of the 1930s retrospectively tell us about the morals of their time. And the original “Arthur” is terribly dated if we want to go there. But it’s a neat artifact in many ways and also a great representation of that era, just as the Reagan Administration was starting out. The timelessness is in the rich man/poor girl dynamic. Everything else should be adaptable for the present. Otherwise, what’s the point of remaking a film?
A Reuters article quotes Syracuse University Professor Robert Thompson as criticizing the need for social responsibility by mentioning “Romeo and Juliet,” which by today’s standards would require an elimination of the double suicide. Well, I don’t think suicide was exactly a socially accepted thing centuries ago, the way excessive drinking might have been less an issue 30 years back, but in fact there have been plenty of translations and takes on that star-crossed lovers plot (which was not conceived by Shakespeare) which change the ending, and not necessarily for happy or socially responsible endings.
The part of that latter McWeeny quote I do agree with him on is the problem of these films being or at least seeming hypocritical. It’s like the conundrum of “Dinner for Schmucks,” which wants you to laugh at the fools and then tell you it’s wrong to do so. Or “Sucker Punch” luring in guys with sexy schoolgirls and then meaning to inform the audience its wrong for being so sexist (Snyder claims it’s the viewer’s fault the girls are dressed that way).
Again, I haven’t seen the “Arthur” remake yet so can’t say if it truly appears to either condone or endorse or otherwise make alcoholism look like a gas for the most part until that ending. It does sound like it at least says “laugh at the drunken fool until we tell you it’s wrong because he has an illness.”
Anyway, if all that the original “Arthur” is to people is a feature-length version of Mr. Deeds’ drunken night out in Capra’s classic from 45 years earlier, then sure Arthur needs to be a drunk. But that just makes the first film little more than a one-joke (or thin-shtick) movie. And in a way it is, but it is also a film that already wants its cake and to eat it, too. Like many movies of the ’30s (“My Man Godfrey” comes to mind, as well as “Mr. Deeds”), it appears to imply that money isn’t everything and acts like it will end up with Arthur abandoning his wealth for love. But at the last moment he’s allowed to keep his inheritance, which he says he’d be stupid to reject. I will assume, until I see the remake, that Brand’s incarnation does the same thing.
I don’t believe that today’s movie stars, Brand included, have the kind of clout celebs used to in terms of focusing films on personal causes. That doesn’t hurt them from trying though, yet such things are mostly done these days through documentary voice-over narration-as-endorsement. I like the idea of filmmakers and their stars using movies as a platform for things they believe in, though. And maybe that is the doc-lover in me saying this.
Who says a movie like “Arthur” has to be as broadly appealing as it looks? And honestly, as someone who has abused alcohol and seen its excessive abuse ruin lives, I wouldn’t be too upset if Brand and his stupid little remake reminded people to drink more responsibility or ask them to abandon the booze completely. It doesn’t mean we have to. I think as long as we can watch the movie and take it for what it is is key.
I really like McWeeny’s statement about how “at some point, we stopped understanding portrayal and confusing it with endorsement.” Yet I also believe we need to remember that endorsement of something we don’t like doesn’t have to ruin a movie for us, whether it be product placement like that Maker’s Mark or a turn like the 12-step-program resolution. I’m just glad that while the addiction hasn’t changed, at least something has been altered for the remake, bringing something new to the table.