Well, one method is to not even try to duplicate the original, but to use the basic premise and convey an entirely different atmosphere. And would you believe this updated version is more politically correct?
What made us cringe about the original, even at the time, was watching Arthur drink himself silly, then get behind the wheel. At least in the 21st century version, he lets his valet drive. Luis Gonzalez doesn’t add that much to the comedy, other than appearing in a ridiculously ill-fitting Robin outfit, but by that time we’ve already grown accustomed to Arthur playing Batman, firing up the faux-Batmobile and roaring down the city streets, just because he can. Yes, of course he’s a lout and a lush. What else would you expect from someone who has been handed wealth all of his life, and never had to learn responsibility? His power-driven mother sits atop the enormously successful family business, imperious and arrogant and ruthless, having long ago consigned her son to the care of nannies, maids, coaches, au pairs and sous-chefs. Of all those paid to care for him, only one actually has: Hobson, the nursemaid played by Helen Mirren. She’s the mom that Arthur always wanted his real mother to be, the one who spent time with him, indulged his whims, read him bedtime stories, and also fussed at him. The one who believed in him and thought he was, underneath, much stronger and more caring than anybody ever realized, including himself.
Enter the procession of selfish, money-grubbing, self-promoting women who want to get their hooks into Arthur to avail themselves of his considerable fortune. Fortunately for him, he’s too self-absorbed to really notice that they’re piranhas in easily removable clothing. The difference with Susan (Jennifer Gardner, playing against type in a deliciously naughty part) is that she’s been calculating enough to endear herself to wicked-witch mother, and so Arthur (happily overplayed by an energetically childish Russell Brand) is now under pressure to marry Susan, or else he’s cut off from his inheritance.
There’s a part of him that wishes he could do without it. But he knows he really has no marketable skills, and is so accustomed to indulging every fantastic whim that he hardly knows what to do with himself when he’s not scandalously throwing away his money. Enter the only nearly-normal person, Naomi (Greta Gerwig), except that she’s a wannabe writer who gives unauthorized (illegal) tours of New York City landmarks, expecting gratuities from unsuspecting tourists in exchange for her gratuitous effervescence. Ah, entrepreneurism, isn’t it grand?
Arthur immediately falls head over heels for her, probably because she ignores him, which nobody else around him has enough sense to do. Of course, there’s that little inconvenience of the impending arranged marriage, and she, though almost desperate for financial support, will not be anyone’s mistress, no matter how well provided for.
Will true love triumph over crass materialism? Do those have to be the only two choices? “Arthur” is, against all odds, consistently funny. Mirren is fantastically nuanced, Brand is compellingly puerile, and we can only wonder why we are so attracted to Gerwig, who dresses like Minnie Mouse and is absent for long sequences, but somehow we root for her anyway. “Arthur” is a pleasant surprise: a cheeky little comedy from a more innocent era that seems just enough dated to be charming.
Ronald P. Salfen is co-pastor of United Presbyterian Church, Greenville, Texas.