In 1981, Dudley Moore played a cackling, inebriated playboy who spent his time entertaining prostitutes. Thirty years later, another English actor, Russell Brand, resurrects the role of Arthur Bach, with some modern updates to the script.
Arthur, the son of a wealthy, old money businesswoman (Geraldine James), may be of legal drinking age but he’s hardly mature enough to handle his liquor. Living in a New York penthouse with his nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren) and his chauffeur Bitterman (Luis Guzmán), the pampered socialite spends most of his waking hours under the influence of alcohol. He also spends oodles of money on sex trade workers, wild parties and automobiles. (He owns an entire fleet of movie cars including the Batmobile, Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Van, the time traveling DeLorean from Back to the Future and the Dukes of Hazzard‘s orange "General Lee.")
Unfortunately his drunken antics often end up in the news, making for wary investors who fear what will happen when the Bach heir takes over the family business. To alleviate these financial worries, Arthur’s mother Vivienne proposes a merger that is as cold and calculating as her parenting style. Arthur is given an ultimatum—marry Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner) or lose his inheritance.
Though Arthur has shared a bed with his mother’s choice of a bride, he’s not very fond of her and the idea of marriage doesn’t really appeal to him either. However, the alternative—being penniless—is even less desirable and so he agrees to the union—at least until he meets Naomi (Greta Gerwig).
Earning extra cash by conducting unlicensed tours of New York City landmarks, Naomi is sweet to a fault. Living next to the tracks with her widowed father, she has ambitions to write a book but no funds to publish it. Arthur is smitten with her innocence (and likely her short, short skirts).
Faced with a dilemma of monetary proportions, Arthur does what Arthur does. He turns to the bottle. As in the original film, alcoholism remains the central issue but the depiction of the problem doesnt seem to be as socially benign as it might have been three decades ago. Although intoxication is played for comedy (something that seems easier to do when the tippler is fabulously rich), the script avoids looking at the dark and desperate circumstances most men with Arthur’s addiction would find themselves in. Arthur’s insobriety also becomes an excuse for crude and irreverent jokes about homosexuals, male anatomy and Christian Deity. Swinging between moments of drunken incompetence and deep philosophical insights, Arthur might be tolerable in small doses. But he quickly becomes tiresome as a hero who relies on others to take care of him and refuses, for most of the movie, to accept any responsibility for the choices he’s made in life.
While Arthur eventually acknowledges his drinking problem, the film’s ending seems just a little too glossy and sanitized for a man who has devoted his entire adulthood to liquor and promiscuity.