It strikes me as strange that in this era of Charlie Sheen “winning” and celebrity rehab shows, so much of the criticism heaved on the remake of Arthur has to do with the fact that the title character played by Russell Brand (and Dudley Moore in the 1981 original) drinks too much. True he’s a jolly drunk, which apparently makes it worse. How dare he enjoy drinking?
Well, I don’t know about you, but that’s where my drinking began. Certainly, when I started sneaking drinks in high school, I wasn’t drinking to forget. I lived in a stable, middle-class home. What could I have had to forget: My math homework? Although, I confess, I did use alcohol to overcome my inhibitions.
The delight in watching Brand’s libertine aristocrat, his drunken Peter Pan refusing to grow up, is that while he’s inebriated, he says all the things we think but won’t let pass our lips. And that’s what makes his character amusing.
When Arthur notices that Jennifer Garner’s character, his fiancé, has “clown lips,” I nodded in agreement. Why hadn’t I thought of that before and used it in a review of the actress?
Drinking and self-editing don’t mix, which can have both entertaining and disastrous effects. For most of Arthur, I found it entertaining. Part of it was that I refused to submit to the sobering tendency of most critics to compare it to the original. Lighten up! Have a drink!
But given that we’re in the 21st century, Arthur must confront the fact that part of growing up is facing his drinking “problem.” So, in this remake, the drunken heir attends AA. It’s a grim, self-castigating affair in a church hall.
Arthur, appalled, can’t join in. Hey, the guy isn’t much of a joiner, period. And his grasp of reality is tenuous, something that’s not entirely due to drink, but economics.
At the meeting, since Arthur’s nanny (played by Helen Mirren) has dragged him in to the self-loathing salon, she also steps in as a surrogate sharer. It’s the nanny, not Arthur, who gives the man’s confessional story of woe: Daddy died; Mommy withheld love.
It’s sweetly funny to see Mirren standing in for her charge, symbolically wiping Arthur’s winky even in this adult forum. And there’s a moment of catharsis for the character in recognizing that he might not be ready for 12 Steps, but he could use taking a first step towards owning both his pain and his potential happiness.
While I find it easy to embrace this kind of drunken behavior on screen – and find it preferable to Nicolas Cage’s alcoholic melancholy in Leaving Las Vegas – I may be in the minority. It seems that American critics, and possibly audiences, have become increasingly judgmental about unrepentant drinkers. In this remake, Arthur repents a bit, but apparently not enough for contemporary viewers.
Is it possible that Americans have become even more judgmental, more Puritanical, about alcohol addiction since Arthur first hit the screen in 1981? There have always been drunken characters – Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master series, Crazy Guggenheim on the Jackie Gleason Show. So, the characters haven’t entirely changed; it’s our perceptions that have.
Thelma Adams is the author of a novel, Playdate. She has been the film critic at Us Weekly since 2000, following six years at the New York Post. She has twice chaired the New York Film Critics Circle. She has written for many periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, and The Huffington Post. She lives in Hyde Park, New York, with her husband, son, daughter, three cats, one spaniel and a flock of wild turkeys.