- - Thursday, April 7, 2011

The remake of the 1981 comedy “Arthur” has a bit of a drinking problem. When the original was released 30 years ago, Dudley Moore’s jolly, dipsomaniacal pose was played for laughs. Today, it would be movie malpractice to portray a decadent, booze-addled lifestyle without at least a nod to the destructive power of addiction and the redemptive potential of recovery. “Arthur” does give them a nod — just enough to undermine the uncomplicated, heartfelt comedy of the original and turn the entire enterprise into a bit of a moral muddle.

Even in 1981, “Arthur” was a throwback, employing the silly but effective contrivances of the Depression-era screwball comedy. This time, Arthur Beck (Russell Brand) is a slacker playboy who stands to inherit $950 million if he goes along with a planned marriage to fund manager Susan Johnson, played by a riotously miscast Jennifer Garner. In a telling concession to modernity, the marriage is demanded by Arthur’s mother in order to ensure that a family member (Susan) can take charge of the business. (In the 1981 version, the marriage was required to recapitalize the flagging family fortune, and the object of desire was not Susan but her wealthy father.) Arthur finds this marriage of convenience a bit inconvenient, at first because he would prefer his lush life in a Manhattan penthouse to a sham marriage, but eventually because he prefers the company of the quirky, unlicensed tour guide and budding children’s book author Naomi Quinn (Greta Gerwig, best known as Ben Stiller’s love interest in the independent film “Greenberg”).

The performances are so wildly divergent that it’s hard to believe the actors were all taking their cues from the same director. Mr. Brand interprets “Arthur” as a kind of willful man-child, whose idiocies are occasionally punctuated with deft witticisms that betray a slightly used intelligence. Miss Garner plays Susan as greedy with a hint of undiagnosed psychosis thrown in for good measure. Brilliant character actor Luis Guzman is wasted as the laconic chauffeur Bitterman, and Nick Nolte is on angry autopilot as Susan’s bullying father.

No one in the cast seems to know whether they are in a full-on parody or a coming-of-age story. Only the great Helen Mirren emerges blameless from the mire of “Arthur.” Her take on the nanny Hobson (an update of the butler played by John Gielgud in the original) is pitch-perfect, blending affection and contempt for the misguided and inebriated Arthur.

The film alludes to an ugly side of Arthur’s drinking, but alcohol is idealized visually. Multiple close-up shots show the Maker’s Mark bourbon bottle (a privilege typically reserved for brands that pay for product placement), and other shots feature the amber-colored liquid in a lead-crystal tumbler, seductively catching a bit of light. Yet when the time comes that Arthur is in need of redemption, he is able to achieve it in montage form, like a movie boxer in training.

★★

TITLE:Arthur

CREDITS: Directed by Jason Winer; screenplay by Peter Baynham

RATING: Rated PG-13 - profanity, excessive drinking, references to casual sex and prostitution

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS