Arthur

Posted on April 7, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Russell Brand takes over the title role in this unnecessary remake of the better-remembered-than-re-watched 1981 film starring Dudley Moore and the Oscar-winning Sir John Gielgud. It’s harder to find a perpetually substance-abusing hedonist funny these days than it was back in the Reagan Administration era.  There have just been too many boy-men comedies and too many episodes of “Celebrity Intervention” since then to give this idea the freshness it had 30 years ago. Compare the advertising taglines for the films.  Circa 1981: Not everyone who drinks is a poet, some of us drink because we’re not.  Circa 2011: No Work. All Play.  Crisper, perhaps, but dumbed down and not too ambitious or intriguing.

Brand, who can do quite well when he essentially plays himself, his offhand delivery contrasting nicely with the outrageousness of the comments, is a comedian, not an actor, and he seems lost just when his character most needs to demonstrate the depth to persuade us that two fine women see something worth loving in him. When Brand shows up in the opening credits as not just star but co-producer, it becomes drearily obvious that this movie was the result of nothing more than a “let’s find a vehicle for Russell” meeting.  There is no sense at any point that anyone connected with the film had any special inspiration about either remaking or updating the original.  We hear a few notes from the original film’s Oscar- and Grammy-winning song (“When you get caught between the moon and New York Ciiiity….”), but just a few flickers of what made the Moore version so appealing.

As in the first film, Arthur is a fabulously wealthy man who tries to amuse himself by over-spending or over-indulging in alcohol and women or preferably both at once.   His loyal nanny (Dame Helen Mirren replacing Gielgud as the butler) is the only one who is close to him and the only one who cares about him.  His mother is a tycoon who would hold him in disdain if she thought he was worth the effort.  The girl he slept with the night before tucked his watch into her purse.  The cops get a bit annoyed when he floors it in his Batmobile.  And somehow showering money and gifts on random strangers does not win him friends, either.

Arthur’s mother gives him an ultimatum.  Either he marries the rapaciously ambitious Susan (Jennifer Garner, having a lot of fun but not quite managing to squelch her innate niceness) or he is cut off from the fortune and must find some other way to support himself.  Even though he has just met a girl named Naomi who might make him happy (indie darling Greta Gerwig in her first big-budget leading role), he agrees.  The dilemma gets amped up as Arthur becomes more attached to Naomi and when he meets Susan’s father, played by Nick Nolte in a tasteless role as a nouveau riche bully who casually plucks out the nails Arthur accidentally shot into him and forces Arthur to put his tongue in a buzz saw.  And then Arthur, who has always been taken care of, has to care for someone else when his nanny becomes, as she would say, ill.

“I like earning something,” Naomi tells Arthur, “And I know you don’t know what that feels like.  It is great.”  I like movies that earn the respect and affection of their audience with diligence, sincerity, and imagination.  The people behind this movie do not know what that feels like, and that doesn’t feel great.

(more…)

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Comedy Remake Romance

The Invention of Lying

Posted on January 19, 2010 at 8:00 am

Ricky Gervais has come up with a fresh and enticing premise but — I have to be honest — it is imperfectly executed. It has the gloss of a romantic comedy because it gives us the fun of knowing that the couple will end up together long before they figure it out for themselves. But it also takes on some very big issues and has some surprising insights.

Gervais has imagined a world that looks exactly like ours, except that the people can only tell the concrete, literal truth. That means that they always say exactly what is on their minds, most of which is, to be brutally frank, brutally frank. This is not a crowd you want to ask whether these pants make you look fat.

And so when Mark (Gervais, who also co-wrote and co-directed) goes out on a date with a woman he has had a crush on named Anna (Jennifer Garner), she tells him up front that he is not in her league. He is repeatedly told that he is fat, dull, and unappealing. And then he is fired from his job as a screenwriter. But since fiction is a form of lying, all of this world’s movies are merely footage of people sitting in chairs reading aloud text about historical events. Mark, assigned to the 13th century, is fired because the only thing he can write “movies” about is the black plague.

About to be evicted because he cannot pay the rent, Mark goes to the bank to close out his account and the movie’s title event occurs. He informs the teller that he has more money than the bank’s computers show. And since no lie has ever occurred in this world, the teller believes him. Mark is thrilled with this new power, especially when he discovers he can ease his mother’s passing at what our world would politely call a nursing home but in no-lie world is identified with a sign that reads “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.” She is upset because she does not know what happens after death, so he tells her that she will be in a place where everything is loving and plentiful and she will be reunited with everyone she has loved. She dies in peace and the doctor and nurses who overheard want to know more. And soon Mark’s new ability to imagine gets him his job back and everyone wants to hear all about heaven and the “Man in the Sky.”

Gervais is not as imaginative as a director as he is as a writer but we get to see what a subtle and even moving actor he has become. The flatness of delivery of the no-lie world is a challenge for the cast, including comedian Louis C.K., Jason Bateman, Rob Lowe (looking unnecessarily seedy), Tina Fey, the inescapable Jonah Hill, and John Hodgman, and the talented Nathan Corddry and Christopher Guest are on screen too briefly to make much of an impression. Jennifer Garner is a great pleasure, as always, giving us a chance to see the wistful longing for something she cannot define because it is beyond her ability to conceive.

Amid the jokes (just imagine what soda ads look like in a world without exaggeration and implication) there are some provocative and meaningful insights. Lies are impossible without abstraction and the ability to imagine. And so is fiction. And so is faith. And even love. Without the ability to conceive abstraction, marriage is only about genetic superiority. There is no kindness, no compassion, no real understanding.

Some audience members will be uncomfortable at the suggestion that God is portrayed as a lie but this underestimates the film. While Gervais is an acknowledged atheist, the movie does not have to be seen that way. The emptiness of the lives of the people in a world devoid of anything but the literal truth and the way they are enthralled with the concepts of faith and meaning argue just the opposite. Just because someone lies about something does not change the underlying reality. Watch Gervais’ face as Mark uses his new ability to depart from concrete truth to provide encouragement and inspiration, and enjoy a comedy that may be about the invention of lying but knows how to tell the truth.

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Comedy Fantasy Romance
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Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Posted on September 22, 2009 at 10:00 am

“Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” feels like ghosts of movies past, with a been-there, seen-that feeling that goes far beyond its familiar appropriation of the structure of “A Christmas Carol.” It is not as deep as Matthew McConaughey’s dimples. He plays Connor Mead, a photographer so fabulously successful that he captures a magazine cover with one click of the shutter, while he mesmerizes every female in a mile radius into doing all but levitating out of their clothes every time he looks at them.

At his brother’s wedding, Connor is visited by the ghost of their guardian, world-class womanizer Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas), who tells him he will be visited by three ghosts to help him learn about what he needs to change in his life. The first is Allison, played by”Superbad’s” very gifted Emma Stone, with a frizz of hair, a mouthful of braces, and some serious 80’s fashion victim attire. She takes him from his childhood love Jenny to the early lessons from Uncle Wayne in (1) picking up as many women as possible and (2) feeling as little for them as possible.” He relives his conquests and liaisons and his romance with Jenny (Jennifer Garner). Meanwhile, he manages to wreck havoc on the wedding plans.

The primary problem here is that the movie wants to have Connor both ways, a heartless but irresistible lady-killer who is callously offensive, breaking up with three girls at once via conference call and telling everyone at the wedding that marriage is a disaster. He’s less an emotional Ebenezer Scrooge than he is a throwback to those cads-just-waiting-to-be-tamed ring-a-ding-ding movies Frank Sinatra used to make like The Tender Trap and “Come Blow Your Horn.”

But we’ve come a long way, baby, since then, and the idea of the love ’em and leave ’em Lothario is neither as charming or as believable as it once was. Even McConaughey’s dimples can’t keep Connor from seeming more creepy than magnetic. The endless rows of women who are ready, willing, and able to do anything but act with any semblance of intelligence or dignity come across as embarrassing and sadly in need of some “he’s just not that into you” lessons. We cannot connect to the movie because it is impossible to feel any sympathy for Connor or root for his happiness. Fred Ward is nicely flinty as the prospective father-in-law but poor Lacey Chabert can’t help sounding shrill as the kind of bride who freaks out about every detail. Even the divine Anne Archer can’t do much with a cougar-role that gives her little do do but murmur knowingly. The highlights of the film are Stone’s teenage ghost and especially Garner. Her grace, elegance, and authenticity make us wish for her to do a lot better than the guy with the ghosts. And a lot better than this lackluster and formulaic script.

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Comedy Romance

Catch and Release

Posted on January 22, 2007 at 12:21 pm

For the first time, screenwriter Susannah Grant not only writes but directs with this messy romantic weepie about a woman whose fiance is killed just before the wedding.


Grant is known for writing movies with strong female characters, from Disney’s Pocahontas to Julia Roberts’ starring title roles in Charlotte’s Web and Erin Brocovich. But she is less certain as a director, and the result is an uneven tone and a rickety structure. It might still be watchable except for the more serious problem, a fundamental failure to understand that the characters are far less adorable than the movie needs them to be. Even after reported substantial cuts and reworking, our patience and affection runs out long before the movie is over.


Jennifer Garner is Gray, who ends up at a funeral on what was supposed to have been her wedding day. The presents are in piles, the cake is in the freezer. The flowers and people are there, but they are funeral flowers and the people are sad and shell-shocked. Gray hides out in the bathtub, pulling the shower curtain around her for some privacy. So she is stuck there when her fiance’s friend Fritz (Timothy Olyphant of HBO’s “Deadwood”) stumbles in with the caterer and a joint for a quickie against the sink.


See what I mean about less charming than the movie thinks they are? Later on, in what is clearly intended to be a moment of adorable vulnerability, Gray confides her flaws and quirks to a group of friends and they include stealing library books, having had sex once with another woman, and enjoying natural disasters with lots of casualties.


All of this comes about as Gray finds out that her fiance (oddly named Grady) had not told her everything about himself. There’s a matter of a substantial bank account she never knew about. And another woman. With a child.

But I’m not done with the not-as-cute-as-they-think-they-are cast of characters. Gray cannot afford the home she was going to share with Grady, so she moves into his old room with his old friends Dennis (Sam Jaeger) and Sam (Kevin Smith, no longer Silent and trying to be the new Jack Black). So apparently Grady had that secret bank account and could manage that dream house they were going to live in but was still in a group house? Well, let’s not dwell on that because it’s the only way to get Gray into all those cute situations with the intended-to-be-adorable arrested development crew. And, just to make it all even more cozy, Fritz, the highly successful but not really happy LA commercial director moves in, too. And then, just to make it even more of a sit-com set-up, Grady’s other girlfriend (I know! Let’s make her all into psychic energy and massages and stuff!) and her wild child of a son. Won’t that be cute and touching? Nope.


Reportedly cut down from an unwieldy running time, it feels like a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing — that forms a picture that wasn’t worth waiting for. Perhaps it’s all that fishing, but even the usually endearing Garner looks a little piscatory — those lips, you know.

Parents should know that this movie has some mature material including a very sad loss, a possible suicide attempt, issues of betrayal, and paternity testing. Characters drink, smoke marijuana, and take prescription tranquilizers (mixing with alcohol). There are sexual references and situations, including casual sex and references to being unfaithful. Characters use some strong and crude language.


Families who see this movie should talk about why the people in Grady’s life saw him so differently. Who knew him best? Would you have liked him? Why wasn’t he more honest with Gray?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the book Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin and the movies Moonlight and Valentino and Moonlight Mile.

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Comedy Date movie Drama Romance
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