Flix Picks is a semi-regular feature that explores the depths of my Netflix queue and allows me the chance to catch up with some older films that I’ve not yet seen.
With the release of the Arthur remake hitting theaters soon, I thought I’d take a look back at the original since it has somehow eluded me all these years. The movie was a big hit back in 1981, even earning a couple of Oscars (a rarity for comedies), but I feel like it’s a little less talked about today than other films from that time. Sure, it has a favorable reputation and many people remember it, but I just don’t hear it talked about that much other than through the recent remake publicity. With that in mind, I was curious to check the film out and determine whether or not it held up as one of the defining comedies of the ’80s.
The story follows Arthur (Dudley Moore), an often-times drunken millionaire, who essentially just wants to have a good time cracking jokes and tossing back a few drinks. Just picture the typical man-child character who has refused to grow up and you’ve got the idea. His biggest problem: Arthur’s family has arranged for him to marry Susan, a woman from another rich family who he doesn’t love. As if that weren’t bad enough, there’s even more at stake. If Arthur doesn’t go through with the marriage he’ll be cut off from his family fortune, losing $750 million. Bummer, right? To further complicate matters, he meets a lower-class gal named Linda (Liza Minnelli) and quickly falls head over heels for her. As his wedding day draws near, a decision has to be made. Will Arthur choose to maintain the life of luxury to which he’s become accustomed, or will love win the day?
While the premise may be basic and a bit formulaic for some tastes, I think the main element the film hinges on is whether you like the title character. On that count, I had mixed feelings. Clearly, the movie’s intent is for Arthur to be an endearing oaf, but I didn’t find him that appealing. In fact, at times he’s just annoying; laughing obnoxiously at his own jokes. (Seriously, they go back to that constantly and it gets really old.) The performance itself was fine. Dudley Moore could undoubtedly play a great drunk and he displays some fine comedic timing as well. I just didn’t find the character particularly funny or interesting. I’ll admit that as the film wore on, Arthur sort of grew on me and there were some one-liners that hit the mark (“Do you think he wants some cheese?”). Although, when you have a character like Arthur who dishes out jokes in a rapid-fire style, there’s bound to be a few that connect. With comedy being highly subjective, I could how many people would disagree with my view, but Arthur was just a mixed-bag for me.
I’ll be honest, my ambivalence for Arthur had me puzzled. There have been similar films that I’ve loved; Billy Madison perhaps being the most appropriate example since the title character there is also a rich buffoon. Both films could be labeled childish and grating, yet I enjoy one so much more than the other. Ultimately, I think the answer could lie in the intentions behind each film. Billy Madison makes no pretensions to be anything other than a stupid comedy with random jokes. Arthur, on the other hand, has its sights set higher, attempting to mix pathos and earnestness along with humor. While there’s nothing wrong with that combination in and of itself, I just wasn’t buying into it this time.
In the movie’s attempts to shoehorn in some more emotional scenes, the results always fell flat for me. Specifically, there’s a subplot between Arthur and his butler Hobson that functions as a device to add some weight to the film. You know how this goes; the protagonist gets some life lessons from his old pal to help him grow and overcome his troubles. (Not to spoil anything, but this element of the story reminded me of the Alfred subplot in Batman and Robin; an unfortunate comparison to say the least.) The whole thing feels forced, though, because I was never that invested in the characters to begin with. To some extent, the same could be said for Arthur’s relationship dilemma, which causes some introspective examination. It also doesn’t help that, by the end, anything Arthur has supposedly learned from his more serious moments in the film get thrown completely out the window in favor of a joke.
One element that did work for me was Hobson the butler, played by Sir John Gielgud. I’m not sure if Arthur started the trend of wise-cracking butlers in movies, but it’s surely been an influence on films that followed, for better or worse. I feel like this character shouldn’t have worked for me as well as it did, but I found myself chuckling at most of his quips anyway. It’s the same trope that we’ve seen hundreds of times: a proper, buttoned-down old person who spouts off-color remarks. I think Gielgud just delivers the material so well that it rose above what it would normally be. Without his performance, the movie could have been a real slog.
I realize that I’ve come across fairly harsh towards Arthur, but I by no means hate the film. It’s really fairly standard and I wouldn’t mind revisiting it in a few years to see if my opinion changes to a more favorable view. Meanwhile, on the plus side, the movie does provide us with the now-famous theme song, “Arthur’s Theme (The Best You Can Do)”, which is frustratingly catchy. In fact, I’ve had it stuck in my head for a few days now and I don’t know when it will stop. It actually won the Academy Award that year for Best Song. I guess that’s just further proof that you can’t go wrong with Burt Bacharach and Christopher Cross, right?
So, what are your thoughts on Arthur? If you haven’t seen the movie, watch it on Netflix Watch Instant and weigh in with your opinions. Are you looking forward to the Russell Brand remake?