If you have fond memories of the 1981 comedy “Arthur,” that says a couple of things about you. One, you’ve been around for at least 40 years, and two, you’re probably curious about the remake, which arrives in theaters Friday.
Much has changed since Dudley Moore first appeared as Arthur Bach, the merrily alcoholic heir to a family fortune who must agree to an arranged marriage or forfeit his millions. Liza Minnelli starred as the charming waitress who catches his eye; John Gielgud won a supporting actor Oscar as Arthur’s long-suffering butler, Hobson; and Christopher Cross earned an Oscar for his song “Arthur’s Theme,” which topped the Billboard charts.
The new version, co-starring Russell Brand as Arthur and Helen Mirren as Hobson, has many of the same basic ingredients as the original, including the New York City setting and several lines of dialogue that keen-eared fans will recognize. But there also are major updates that reveal how much has changed over the decades, from our taste in actors to our attitudes about alcohol.
Here’s how the two “Arthurs” stack up.
A beloved Brit comedian
Back in 1981, America’s pet Brit was the short, cuddly Moore, who had just scored a resounding success as the star of the sex farce “10.” Today the U.S. has fallen for the lanky and much edgier Brand. Where Moore played Arthur as an overgrown kid, Brand turns him into a debauched playboy who keeps popping up in the tabloids ― a little less Peter Pan, a little more Charlie Sheen.
The quirky love interest
Minnelli, who oozes Hollywood royalty, was an unusual choice to play Linda Marolla, a character dismissed as “the nobody from Queens.” These days, there’s a whole sub-tier of offbeat, plain-but-pretty actresses, from Ellen Page to Maggie Gyllenhaal. In the new “Arthur,” Linda is renamed Naomi and played by Greta Gerwig, an indie-world It Girl whose credits include “Greenberg” and “Baghead.” Her Naomi is an aspiring children’s book author.
Helen Mirren as Hobson and Russell Brand as Arthur in Warner Bros. Pictures’ romantic comedy “Arthur.” Courtesy of Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. (Pictures/MCT)
The shotgun marriage
Before she became Ann Kelsey on NBC’s “L.A. Law,” Jill Eikenberry played Susan Johnson, a bland, humorless rich girl who wants to turn Arthur into a responsible adult. (Susan: “A real woman could stop you from drinking.” Arthur: “Hafta be a real big woman.”) The new Susan is a much more aggressive character, played by Jennifer Garner as a ladder-climbing businesswoman who wants Arthur’s name, not his heart.
The snooty butler
The two Hobsons, Mirren and Gielgud, have some similarities: Each served with the Royal Shakespeare Company and earned an Oscar. But while Gielgud played the role as a staunch elitist (“Usually one must go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature,” he tells Minnelli’s Linda), Mirren gives Hobson a little more grit. In an encounter with Evander Holyfield, she threatens to bite off his other ear.
How rich was Arthur Bach in 1981? As he put it, “I wish I had a dime for every dime I had.” His actual net worth was $750 million, which would have put him solidly within the Forbes 400 list (published for the first time in 1982). Last year’s list included billionaires only, yet the new film ups Arthur’s fortune only a tad, to $950 million. Why? It may be to keep Arthur likable, and distance him from today’s widely villainized, super-rich Wall Streeters.
Surely you haven’t forgotten ― though you may have tried ― Cross’ easy-listening hit “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” with its refrain about being caught between the moon and New York City. The song returns, this time covered by retro-soul favorites Fitz and the Tantrums. As is increasingly common in movies, the entire soundtrack is peppered by pop songs: You’ll hear Mark Ronson, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and Australian R&B singer Daniel Merriweather.
As Moore’s Arthur slurred his words and tripped over hedges, few seemed to care that the film portrayed chronic drunkenness as a source of comedy. The new version tackles the issue differently. Perhaps nodding to Brand’s own well-publicized substance abuse, his Arthur attends Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s not entirely dead serious: At the first meeting he grumbles, “It’s like un-happy hour.”
The role of Bitterman originally was played by Ted Ross, who was black. Now Arthur’s dutiful driver is played by Luis Guzman, who is Puerto Rican. Maybe things haven’t changed much after all.
By Rafer Guzman