It's been 30 years since Dudley Moore staggered drunkenly through the original Arthur. So why not give it another spin? The problem is that little performance and casting choices can mean a lot - and as funny as the new Arthur frequently is, it feels as perpetually off-balance as its main character.
That main character is Arthur Bach (Russell Brand) - heir to a multimillion-dollar fortune, dawn-to-dusk drunkard and general paragon of immature irresponsibility. Never required to hold down a job and always watched over by his nanny-since-birth, Hobson (Helen Mirren), Arthur is a source of embarrassment and a threat to the family business for his mother (Geraldine James). So mama lays down the law: Arthur will marry icy but successful business executive Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner) to give investors the impression of long-term stability, or Arthur will lose his inheritance. Inconveniently, this ultimatum comes just as he meets and falls for kind-hearted working-class Naomi (Greta Gerwig).
Brand gets plenty of terrific lines, which he tosses out with a casual confidence. Yet he's a completely different type of comic presence than Dudley Moore - a full foot taller, and prone to speaking with a snarl that makes it look as though a drawstring has been wrapped around his lips. In short, there's a sense of danger about him, which has a tendency to make him a less instantly sympathetic party animal than cuddly Dudley.
Mirren, on the other hand, would seem to be more than a bit of gender-reversed stunt casting as counterpoint to John Gielgud's Oscar-winning Hobson from the original Arthur. She brings a similar gravitas, and comic timing that's just as solid as her dramatic chops. But making Hobson a surrogate mother rather than a surrogate father results in less of a prickly initial interaction between the two; when Mirren softens toward Naomi and tries to steer Arthur toward happiness, there's not as much surprise to the shift. As good as Mirren is, she's always playing the caring de facto family member, rather than the somewhat exasperated babysitter.
If there's one welcome improvement, it comes from Gerwig's role. Liza Minnelli's shoplifter with a heart of gold was quirky, but Gerwig brings an effortless radiance that raises the romantic stakes. She also brings a naturalism to the relationship between Naomi and Arthur, which doesn't play to Brand's strengths.
This Arthur is often very funny, and an ideal showcase for a comedian like Brand. But it winds up in an awkward middle ground between frivolous airiness and down-to-earth humanity.