You may have heard there's a new 'Arthur' in town these days, but with the old one still spry, funny, and wonderfully endearing after three decades, there's little reason to patronize the 2011 remake. Dudley Moore may not be an icon, but he certainly trumps Russell Brand, and his portrayal of the perennially inebriated millionaire with the slurred speech and buoyant giggle has become his most identifiable role. Nobody plays drunk like Dudley, and even if he overdoes it on occasion, he still engenders plenty of laughs. Yet 'Arthur' is far from a one-man show. Steve Gordon's farce also features a superior Oscar-winning turn by the estimable John Gielgud as Arthur's wise and uproariously acerbic valet (only Sir John can make a line like "You little shit" sound like Shakespeare) and a spritely portrayal by Liza Minnelli long before she became a caricature of herself and went certifiably bananas.
Though we all could have lived happily till the end of time without an 'Arthur' remake, I guess we should thank the producers, for it certainly spurred the Blu-ray release of the original, as well as its misguided - okay, truly awful - sequel. Packaged together on a single disc, 'Arthur' and 'Arthur 2: On the Rocks' make a logical double feature, but only the most fanatical fans - or those as tipsy as the title character - will bother with the tedious (did I already say truly awful?) follow-up.
'Arthur,' however, is still worth revisiting. Produced at the dawn of the big-money '80s, the movie celebrates a pampered playboy who revels in his wealth and idleness, drinks to excess because he likes to and can, indulges his inner-child, shuns responsibility as if it were the plague, and enjoys all the high- and low-end pleasures his substantial bankroll can buy. It's refreshing to see such guiltless abandon and puerile innocence in someone so loaded (literally and figuratively); Arthur isn't ashamed of his stature, isn't tainted by it, and remains clear-headed enough to realize that money defines him. Forced into proposing to the doe-eyed debutante Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry) by his fed-up father, who believes the marriage will finally inspire his immature son to grow up, Arthur dejectedly marches toward the altar. But a chance meeting with a spunky shoplifter named Linda Morolla (Minnelli), who works as a waitress in a diner and whose father (Barney Martin) is a lovable slob, leads to an unexpected romance. Linda is like a breath of fresh air in Arthur's stuffy world, but bringing her into the family fold seems an impossible task. Arthur's loyal butler, Hobson (Gielgud), works hard to look past Linda's rough edges ("Usually one must go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature," he tells her) and ultimately champions their relationship, yet Arthur may not value true love highly enough to shuck his fortune for it.
Punctuated by withering one-liners delivered in deliciously deadpan style by Gielgud (one of his utterances - "I'll alert the media" - quickly became a catchphrase), 'Arthur' is breezy, silly fun. Its story has some heart (also generated by Gielgud) to go along with Moore's slapstick antics, and it adroitly sends up the eccentricities and ruthlessness of the mega-rich. Moore balances his broad drunken episodes with some tender, sober moments with Gielgud and Minnelli, but the script wisely injects a zinger or two to lighten the mood when things begin to get sappy. Like the man himself, 'Arthur' exudes an intoxicating joie de vivre that carries it through its overblown moments.
Rarely has there been a more popular Oscar winner than Gielgud, and though his role is relatively brief, he makes the most of each syllable. We hang on every quip, and his arched eyebrows and disdainful glares enhance each melodic recitation. Minnelli sheds any diva airs and seems to enjoy playing her down-to-earth, blue-collar role. We never really forget she's Liza, but in this larger-than-life movie, that's okay.
'Arthur' was quite successful upon its initial release, picking up an additional Oscar for the catchy 'Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)' (written by Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, Peter Allen, and Christopher Cross, who also performed it), as well as nominations for Moore for Best Actor (a bit of a stretch perhaps) and writer-director Gordon for his original screenplay. Sadly, a year later, Gordon died of a heart attack at age 44. 'Arthur 2: On the Rocks' is fondly dedicated to him, but one can only surmise how Gordon might have regarded this painfully unfunny, overlong, and totally unnecessary sequel. The film's catchline is "No money. Still funny." Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything 'Arthur' has - wit, lightness, energy - 'Arthur 2' lacks. Jokes seem forced, sentiment drenches too many scenes, and the plot is both dull and predictable. And whoever had the idea of bringing Gielgud back in a ghostly capacity just so he could spout a few choice put-downs and call Arthur a "little shit" one last time deserves to be shot.
'On the Rocks' takes place at Christmastime and opens with a sloshed Arthur sounding way too much like a giddy Ebenezer Scrooge after his transformation by the three spirits. Still drunk 24/7, Arthur is now married to Linda, and in her designer duds and fancy-schmancy surroundings, the once sassy waitress has lost the lip and streetwise attitude that made her so delightful in the first film. Over dinner at Tavern on the Green, Linda announces she is infertile, but the couple decides to adopt, and is aided in the process by the sickly sweet agency director, Mrs. Canby (Kathy Bates in the most goody-two-shoes role of her career). Meanwhile, Bert Johnson (Stephen Elliott), the vengeful father of the jilted Susan (this time played by Cynthia Sikes; Jill Eikenberry surely thanked her lucky stars she was tied up with the TV series 'L.A. Law' and couldn't reprise her role) concocts a scheme to cut off Arthur from all of his funds, leaving him instantly destitute (really?) and with only one option to reclaim his dough - divorce Linda and marry Susan.
What follows are several strained scenes of Arthur and Linda adjusting to poverty, Arthur interacting with homeless bums, and Arthur futilely attempting to hold down a series of menial jobs to make money and appease the adoption agency. None of it is funny, and Bud Yorkin's bland direction can't infuse any life into the drawn-out, uninvolving story. In the first film, Arthur was a happy drunk, but here, he's a melancholy drunk, and that's not nearly as attractive, especially in what's supposed to be a comedy. His anemic interplay with the new butler, Fairchild (Paul Benedict), only emphasizes the void left by Gielgud, and Hobson's foolish celestial appearance in the final act - no doubt a last ditch effort to perk up a dreary enterprise - comes way too late to salvage this debacle.
I was looking forward to viewing the original 'Arthur' again, and though it didn't strike my fancy quite as much as it did when I first saw it theatrically back in 1981 (age has dulled its appeal just a tad), I still found myself laughing frequently. (Arthur's giggle may be grating, but it's also strangely contagious.) I had never seen the, pardon the repetition, truly awful sequel before and am now sorry I did. (Oh, am I sorry!) If, like me, you remember 'Arthur' fondly, then I'm sure you'll enjoy it again. And if, like me, you have managed to avoid the sequel until now, don't weaken. Just treat this two-movie package as a single release, and pretend 'On the Rocks' doesn't exist. Trust me, it's what the late Steve Gordon would have wanted.
'Arthur 2: On the Rocks': 1/5
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Arthur' and 'Arthur 2: On the Rocks' share a single BD-50 dual-layered disc and come packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. Video codec is 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC for both movies, and audio for 'Arthur' is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0; 'Arthur 2' is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Upon insertion of the disc, the static menu without music immediately pops up after the Warner Home Video logo. No previews or promos precede it.
Hardly a flagship release, 'Arthur' and 'Arthur 2' didn't get the TLC Warner often lavishes on its more important catalogue films. The opening title sequence of the original movie looks downright shabby, but the quality improves somewhat once the main narrative begins. The source material is largely free of any debris, and a modicum of grain betrays the picture's age. Still, clarity is decent, yet contrast seems muted and colors flaunt a slightly faded appearance. A few of Minnelli's garish outfits exude a bit of pop, but there's not a whole lot of vibrancy in the picture. Black levels are fine, if not especially inky, and fleshtones look stable and natural.
The sequel fares better in the image department. The picture is more defined, with less grain and a silkier appearance. Colors are more brilliant; Minnelli wears a lot of red, and it's lush and bold. Blacks are strong and fleshtones are true. The source material also looks fresher (as it should; it's seven years younger) and background elements exhibit more detail. Close-ups also flaunt a bit more dimension, and any digital doctoring escapes notice.
Neither of these transfers will blow you away, but they're certainly better than any previous home video incarnation and merit an upgrade for fans.
'Arthur 2: On the Rocks': 3.5/5
Don't expect much from either 'Arthur' soundtrack. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track on the original and 2.0 track on the remake both supply satisfactory sound with no distortion or age-related imperfections, but neither distinguishes itself in any way. Dialogue is the main attraction, and it is always well prioritized and easy to understand. The title themes of both movies enjoy good dynamic range and above average fidelity, but the background scores don't have much presence or depth of tone. Bass frequencies are lacking, but that's not surprising due to the conversational nature of each film. 'Arthur 2' sounds a bit more lively and nuanced than its mono predecessor, thanks to its stereo track, but some exterior dialogue scenes exhibit a muffled quality that's rather annoying. If you're looking for top-flight audio, you won't find it here, but these tracks nevertheless supply serviceable sound that suits each film.
'Arthur 2: On the Rocks': 3/5
The only "extras" are one original theatrical trailer each for both 'Arthur' and 'Arthur 2: On the Rocks.' A "looking back" interview with Liza would have been a hoot (train wreck?), but no such luck.
The original 'Arthur,' though a tad dated, is still funny and warm, thanks to the buoyant talents of Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli, and John Gielgud. The sequel, however, is still a mess and not worthy of anyone's time. Warner's double bill features decent video and audio that improve upon the DVD versions, but won't knock anyone for a loop. Supplements are scarce. Definitely a nice upgrade for fans, but a rental for everyone else. Just promise me you'll only watch the original!