The first time I saw Russell Brand, as the hilariously dissolute British quipster rock star in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), I thought he was brilliant. He made the character so narcissistic yet so relaxed and at home in his self-absorption that he turned every line into a wicked, off-kilter surprise. (He was my choice for best supporting actor of the year.) In last year’s Get Him to the Greek, Brand played the same character with added screen time, and he was still amusing, only not quite as much — less of Brand, it turned out, was more. Now, in what seems like it should be a perfect piece of casting, he stars in a remake of Arthur as a wealthy, childish, and perpetually drunken playboy (the role made so impishly charming 30 years ago by Dudley Moore). This time, though, I really started to wonder: Why are we sitting and watching this dithering, half-cocked egomaniac? The new Arthur is a feathery screwball satire, competent on its own terms, yet as the movie went on I found it increasingly hard to separate the character’s self-indulgence from that of the actor playing him.
Brand has long black hair parted in the middle, eyes that pop out of his head but still seem to be gazing inward, and a gummy leer of a smile that, depending on the context, can come off as sexy or slightly ghastly. He looks like the star of a ’70s road-company production of Godspell, and that flaked-out beatific image helps ground his comedy. It makes everything he says seem that much more irreverent. As Arthur, who lives in an outrageous Fifth Avenue palace (it’s actually the grand old Pierre Hotel), Brand once again plays an inebriated hedonist in flight from the real world. Arthur drinks around the clock, sleeps with every woman he can, and dresses like Batman for a night on the town. (He owns a Batmobile to go with his rubber suit.) His nanny, Hobson, is played by Helen Mirren, in a gender flip from John Gielgud’s classic performance as the acid-tongued butler of the original. Mirren is fine, though not enough of a fuddy-duddy to shock you with her impertinence the way Gielgud did.
Brand has a handful of funny moments, like when he’s sitting at an auction and bids ”$20,000 of money!” or is accused of acting like an idiot and blurts out the ingeniously blitzed self-defense: ”I don’t consider it to be idiocy, but a savantish gift for defying death with fun!” Brand hasn’t lost his garrulous talent for spinning out a line like that one. It turns out, though, that his singsong Cockney flippancy, which can be such a tonic in small doses, becomes toxic when it’s the whole show. The reason? He doesn’t connect with anyone on screen. Not Mirren. Not Jennifer Garner as the all-surface corporate heiress whom Arthur’s mother (Geraldine James) is forcing him to marry lest he be cut off from his trust fund. And not Greta Gerwig as Naomi, the slightly kooky free spirit who can save him. Naomi, who’s from Queens, gives unlicensed tours of Grand Central station and represents everything that’s ”real.” To punch up the point, Gerwig, who came up in mumblecore movies like Hannah Takes the Stairs (and was the costar of Ben Stiller’s Greenberg), wears her crunchy sincerity on her sweetly open, apple-cheeked face. She has an earth-angel adorability. But when Arthur takes Naomi to Grand Central for a midnight date, accompanied by a generic cover of ”Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” the scene has all the romantic magic of an infomercial.
Arthur, of course, is supposed to be selfish, but Dudley Moore, in the 1981 version, showed you the twinkle of innocence that Arthur’s drunkenness covered up. Even sloshed, he kept surprising himself. Moore was a happy rascal. Brand is more like a reptile who plays at being innocent. His Arthur goes to AA (an all-too-?inevitable joke), but it almost doesn’t matter if he’s drunk or not, since Russell Brand always seems to be drunk?on his one-note joy-buzzer brain. If he really wants to be a star, he may need the actor’s version of an intervention, something to stand between his talent and what looks like his relentless self-love. C+