Here's the dirty secret about 1981's Arthur: It's no classic. While a gargantuan box office hit and a double Oscar winner, it hasn't exactly entered the annals as an equal compatriot of, say, Some Like It Hot or Annie Hall — in retrospect, this likable lark wasn't even the funniest film of its year (both Blake Edwards' S.O.B. and Mel Brooks' History of the World: Part I offer more laughs per square footage of film). So the fact that Hollywood has dared to serve up a remake is hardly a earthshaking scandal; after all, it's not like somebody foolishly decided to remake Citizen Kane or The Godfather or Psycho (oops; scratch that last one).
The result is that the new Arthur is a minor guilty pleasure, a freewheeling comedy that offers a fair number of laughs for those who haven't yet grown tired of Russell Brand (a rapidly shrinking demographic, admittedly). Brand is (dare I say it?) the equal of Dudley Moore, who enjoyed a career high mark (and an Oscar nomination) for the original but whose luster dimmed once it became apparent that he tackled every role as if he were portraying a drunk. For his part, Brand draws upon his own party-animal status to play the childlike millionaire, a perpetually inebriated ne'er-do-well who's blackmailed into agreeing to marry a strong-willed socialite (Jennifer Garner) but instead finds love with a sweet girl (Greta Gerwig) from the wrong side of the tracks.
Certainly, the best component of the original was John Gielgud's hilarious, Oscar-winning turn as Arthur's droll butler, Hobson. Here, the character has been reconfigured as Arthur's long-suffering nanny, and while Helen Mirren conveys the role's requisite bite, she simply doesn't make the same impact as her predecessor. Also detrimental to the film is its lurch toward contemporary political correctness (the '81 model was cheerfully, unapologetically rude), most obvious in the dreary attempts (particularly toward the end) to show Arthur learning about the dangers of alcoholism and the joys of a hard day's work. These sequences prove to be a real drag; like its protagonist, Arthur is at its best when making a spectacle of itself.