Russell Brand brings no depth to awful 'Arthur'

Arthur (Russell Brand) eggs on his doting nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren) in 'Arthur,' a remake of the 1981 comedy film that starred Dudley Moore.

Photo by Barry Wetcher

Arthur (Russell Brand) eggs on his doting nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren) in "Arthur," a remake of the 1981 comedy film that starred Dudley Moore.

Arthur Bach has always relied on two things to get by: his limitless fortune and the good sense of lifelong nanny Hobson to keep him ...

Rating: PG-13 for alcohol use throughout, sexual content, language and some drug references

Length: 110 minutes

Released: April 8, 2011 Nationwide

Cast: Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner, Nick Nolte, Greta Gerwig

Director: Jason Winer

Writer: Peter Baynham, Steve Gordon

More info and showtimes »

If you must see "Arthur," choose a theater that serves alcohol. You'll be needing it.

Like a 3-D adventure, this fiasco is best viewed through beer goggles.

A team of moviemakers takes millions of dollars, a classic comedy and a sheet of tracing paper, and produces a travesty. They had the blueprint for a great movie in the 1981 Dudley Moore-John Gielgud "Arthur." Sublime performances. Wicked jokes. The soulful relationship between the rich, spoiled drunk and his sarcastic guardian. The whole algorithm was there. Their job was just to faithfully reproduce it. And they couldn't. My head hurts.

"Arthur" is not one of those where-did-it-all-go-wrong calamities. Its basic design flaw is clear: Russell Brand doesn't have much talent for vulnerability. As Arthur Bach, perpetually sozzled heir of a dragon lady businesswoman, he is presented as a poor little rich boy using booze as a shield against a life of alienation. This is a bit like casting Jason Statham as a sensitive Nobel Prize winner.

Brand, a comic in the Ricky Gervais-Steve Coogan line of inflated self-regard, is best when he's obnoxious. In "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Get Him to the Greek," he was a volatile compound of libido, entitlement and I.Q. He was appalling and very funny. In "Arthur," he's required to be a fabulously wealthy underdog. Brand has given up more than his whiskers to play the soft, warm-and-human center of this movie. He has sacrificed vital parts of his comic anatomy, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

Arthur, living in a Manhattan penthouse playpen, makes the frivolous life of an upper-class twit look like a drag. He has a fleet of iconic movie cars, but no one except his dim-witted butler to go cruising with. He has a magnetically levitating bed and many hookers, but no one to love. When his fire-breathing mother tries to force him into a financially advantageous marriage with a construction heiress, Arthur rebels by falling for a ditsy tourist guide. Will he choose his billion-dollar inheritance or true love? Will he renounce drink through AA? Will the denouement be a huge cop-out? Will the pain never end?

Brand plays drunkenness as a kind of elevated nonchalance, but never achieves the happy-go-lucky verve of Moore or Johnny Depp's Capt. Jack Sparrow. He capers down the streets of Manhattan in a top hat, waving his scarecrow arms as if auditioning for a pantomime "Alice in Wonderland." As his steely socialite fiancee, Jennifer Garner is so unpleasantly shrewish that one cringes whenever she returns to the screen.

Indie movie pussycat Greta Gerwig plays the tender, salt-of-the-earth Queens girl who could be Arthur's salvation. She's not bad, considering that the role is so gauzy a projection of masculine fantasies that the character is utterly lacking in energy and depth. Helen Mirren, slumming in the role of Arthur's stern but doting nanny, is more vividly alive than the rest of the cast even when the script requires her to wear a Darth Vader helmet and command, "Wash your winkie."

Gielgud won an Oscar in the original film; if there was an award for graceful acting in a disaster, Mirren could clear a space on her shelf right now.

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