There have been several comedies released in 2011, each noble in their own endeavors. The Green Hornet, for instance, wrapped comedy around a superhero action flick. And who could forget Just Go With It, which valiantly attempted to convince us that Jennifer Aniston was homely. There was also Hall Pass, which bravely tried to convince us that the Farrelly Brothers were still relevant, while Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son indomitably stretched our patience with Martin Lawrence in a gender-reversed fat suit beyond its snapping point.
But Arthur does something even more audacious. It goes for broke. This spirited little remake of an 80’s Dudley Moore film fearlessly endeavors to be the first comedy of 2011 without a shred of comedic value. It is completely humorless! There’s not a funny moment in the entire film. Arthur has the gritty audacity to entirely subvert the comedy genre by removing precisely what it is that makes a comedy a comedy, namely moments, scenes, lines, situations, or facial expressions that might elicit laughter. How daring! How bold! How adventurous!
It’s not to say that Arthur doesn’t have a few sweet moments — it does, mostly in the last act, and thanks mostly to the talents of Greta Gerwig and Helen Mirren. But sweetness is so conventional. Russell Brand is a decidedly unconventional comedian. What Brand brings to the comedy is marvelously unexpected — he completely strips it of any enjoyment! He’s comedy repellent. He’s so perfectly cast here in the year’s first anti-comedy comedy that you just have to tip your hat to the guy — it’s such an achievement, to be able to carry an entire comedy on his back and yet bring no charm or humor to the table. Obnoxiousness? Of course, he has that in spades. Is he irritating? Absolutely! Does he say “cheeky” a lot? Naturally. But is he funny in Arthur? Not even a little bit.
Brand stars as the title character here, a billionaire playboy who fills the void that his dead father and absentee mother left in his life with booze and expensive toys. He’s taken care of by his nanny, Hobson (Helen Mirren), who shoos away the prostitutes after heavy nights of drinking and British yelly-ness. However, after crashing his Batmobile into a large bull statue and bringing disgrace upon his family, Arthur’s mother threatens to cut off his inheritance unless he marries Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner). He’s not in love with Susan, and Susan is not in the least interested in love. She only wants Arthur’s name so that she can be a billionaire instead of a millionaire. (And if it were possible, Jennifer Garner is an even weaker link than Brand here.)
Arthur, however, falls in love with a Naomi (Gerwig), an unlicensed tour guide with an ill father. This presents a challenge for Arthur because choosing Naomi over Susan would mean cutting ties to his wealth, and Arthur doesn’t know how to take care of himself, a decidedly inconvenient position when facing poverty. But he does know how to impress a woman with money and Pez, although Naomi is only interested in his encouragement. He encourages her to become a children’s author, see, and that’s the sort of thing that might prompt a woman to swoon.
It’s all a sticky wicket until, of course, Hobson comes down with a life-threatening illness, and what was once a comedy without any comedy goes a little pear-shaped, and becomes something about material possessions and alcohol addiction and other things that hardly befit the first two acts of Arthur. Of course, it’s that incongruous last act that’s almost watchable. As he demonstrated in Get Him to the Greek, there’s a moderately affecting sad clown inside of Russell Brand, though it’s usually hard to see, what with the braying and the bouncy Drop Dead Fredding all around the screen. He is almost convincing as a sad person trapped in the body of a meth-addled douchebag, and in playing opposite the radiant Greta Gerwig and the stellar Helen Mirren, you can sense that he has some untapped dramatic talent buried deep down beneath the energy drinks and Ritalin.
It’s not enough to redeem Arthur, of course. Don’t be silly. That would take an Act of God. But at least it demonstrates that there’s something else rattling around in that tinny little head of Brand’s that might be useful in the future. In the meantime, unless you’re into experimental feats of comedic banality and laborious achievements of anti-humor, Arthur, like Russell Brand, is best left ignored.