Arthur (1981)

To begin Round II of the famous Letter Game here at Glasgow to the Movies, I gave myself a challenge: Arthur. It’s not that watching the movie was a challenge: both stars Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli were adorable together, and the relationship that the millionaire alcoholic Arthur and his father-figure/butler Hobson (John Gielgud, in an Oscar-winning role, believe it or not) have together is very touching. It’s not that it’s a challenge to determine how I feel about the movie: it’s pleasant, occasionally quite funny, sometimes sweet and not over-long. It’s not that it’s a challenge to determine which moments were my favorite: Moore’s exaggerated drunkenness is always winning, making him the most lovable drunk that I’ve ever seen. No, the reason that Arthur is a challenge is that I’ve said everything there is to say in this first paragraph.

Can I stop now?

I think that the problem I’m having is that the movie is, for all intents and purposes, a fairly standard romantic comedy. I have alluded toward this already but I remain somewhat baffled by it, and that is the fact that Arthur won TWO Academy Awards. The film was re-made in 2011, and though I have not seen the remake, I can’t imagine that it is deserving of such an honor… and I honestly can’t imagine how much different it could be than the original. Perhaps I’m underestimating the depths to which popular film has sunk in thirty years. There are two basic plots here, both telegraphed from the very beginning. The first involves our huggable drunk Arthur being told that he has to marry the blandly-named Susan Johnson or else risk losing his inheritance – nearly a billion dollars, though Art chews through the cash like cotton candy so it’s probably not an inheritance that will last him much longer. Our inebriated hero is thrown for a loop, though, when he falls immediately in love with a petty thief named Linda (Minnelli). Uh oh, now he’s been placed in the perilous position of having to choose between gobs and gobs of money… or puppy love. Meanwhile, Hobson keeps coughing ominously while those around him ask, “Have you seen a doctor?” I’m only surprised that there wasn’t a moment in the film where somebody directly commented upon an approaching storm, only as a metaphor really.

With that said, though there are several moments of good cheer and a great sense of familial spirit between Arthur and Hobson specifically, things happen all too swiftly to take seriously. Susan Johnson isn’t a character so much as a prop, foolishly smitten with Arthur even as he treats her horribly. The two fated lovebirds have the requisite misunderstanding-forcing-temporary-breakup, then reunite with a shocking lack of emotional terrain covered. What I mean is that they seem to simply fall back into one another’s arms without much effort. Hobson’s departure is sudden and unsatisfying, given the depths of the relationship that he had with his employer/son-figure. And Arthur’s grandmother, who places the heavy crown of arranged marriage on our hero’s brow, and who is described in the summary as being “iron-willed”, loses that iron will at the drop of a hat.

But our three main characters stay resolutely uniform in their character. Hobson is a jackass to everybody, including Arthur, but nevertheless loves the man-child dearly. When he insults Linda, as a matter of habit, and Arthur takes offense, the older gentleman realizes the mistake he has made and apologizes immediately. He is tough on Art, but reinforces the truth that he cares deeply about his safety and security. Where Hobson’s steadfast rudeness rarely wavers, it does seem important to point out that Arthur’s alcoholism seldom varies either. It’s true that he makes some attempts at cleaning himself up, but he tends to return to the bottle in moments of frustration. I’ve heard that one change that the 2011 version has included is that it makes certain to refer to Arthur’s dependency on alcohol as a moral failing, as opposed to a hilarious quirk or even a serious illness that should for which he should seek treatment. While the 1981 version of the story certainly doesn’t glamorize or encourage Arthur’s habit, it does allow him to have it without judgment. Okay, maybe it does glamorize it a bit: through most of the beginning of the movie, I was thinking that maybe I should think about making my go-to drink scotch rather than whiskey, taking a cue from the protagonist. For the most part, though he is indeed hilarious while intoxicated, the film does show us that Arthur can hardly control his basic body functions – he stumbles around, falls down, can barely stand up-right; he is looked down upon by people who see him in his drunken state, unable to remember simple words, always in danger of vomiting all over the place. I think it’s easy to see those things, even as we smile at his cah-razy hijinks. And again, the movie allows Arthur to be a drunk – albeit a regretful drunk – without calling him out as a horrible deviant (I suppose it helps that the only time he gets behind the wheel is on a closed course). I’m not sure why I think of it as a mark in the film’s favor that it treats its central character in this way, except that it feels like a singular facet of a show that (aside from its sharp humor) seems to take roads that have been and are still being travelled.

The other Oscar that the film won was for its musical score. I don’t have anything to say about that because I did not take notice. Similarly, I did not take much notice of the directorial style or editing, didn’t see anything that jumped out at me from the cinematography either. Arthur is not an experimental film, not one meant to challenge the viewer to think about life in a different way (other than maybe to imagine what it would be like to be extremely rich). This is not a movie which seeks to cause friction with genre conventions in any way. All it wants to do is be likeable and sweet. It accomplishes exactly that, so I’d call it a success; not a rousing success, though. The film meets expectations, is satisfying, and satisfied to achieve only that.

5 Responses to “Arthur”

  1. Chris Meier says:

    I can see we completely disagree about this one. If we had our own “At the Movies”-like show, this episode would have probably contained a rather loud, frustrated debate.

    Other than a wonderful chemistry between the two leads and a very memorable comedic turn from “Seinfeld” actor Barney Martin as Linda’s father, I found the movie is, in fact, very much a challenge to sit through. Interestingly enough, I think the biggest reason it’s an overrated flop in my eyes is your very astute general assessment of the film – its desire to be nothing more than “likable and sweet.” If more brain power and confidence were considered as tools to assist this want, the comedy wouldn’t find this to be nearly the unachievable goal it makes it out to be. Have you ever met a person who only wanted to be likable? The persistence to hide true thought for fear of rejection can be exhausting (I hate that I used to be that person…).

    The most irritating consensus with other critics I discover again and again is the abundant admiration for Moore’s protagonist. Ebert says I’d have to have “a heart of stone” not to welcome Arthur Bach with open arms. Well, I guess I’m quite the cad then… Most of the time, I find myself fond of the flawed, easily despised hero (i.e. Larry from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), mainly because they have fooled themselves as seeing their stubborn ways as heroic to society. Arthur is too busy being an over-the-top clown – eagerly succumbing to his soberingly unfunny illness – to be heroic in any way, shape, or form (What an intro – we’re supposed to root for the man-child ass with the ill-fated one-liners who picks up prostitutes? When is it he becomes likable? Maybe some Christopher Cross muzak will help persuade us…). He’s an exasperated caricature who can only wish to meet the greatness of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, and just like several other characters in the film (including Hobson), he’s decidedly one-note. Ripe for the world of “The Simpsons” (or more fittingly, “The Critic”) perhaps but too thinly developed for the silver screen.

    I wouldn’t put this film in the very bottom with such odious crap as ‘Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector’ – the heart of ‘Arthur’ does mostly well with the dramatic elements. It’s just sad how little I care what happens to this spoiled scoundrel.

    • Josh Glasgow says:

      I disagree with your first sentence, that this movie would engender a loud debate: I’m not sure I could muster the energy to debate about “Arthur”.

      Well, I suppose I might feel compelled to argue with your assessment of Arthur (the man) as unfunny. I found myself smiling or laughing quite a bit – one of my favorite moments had him almost falling down after placing a glass of scotch on the rounded fender of a car. Not much more to it than him seeing the glass at an angle and losing his balance.

      I wouldn’t disagree that most of the characters are one-note, though my criticism focused primarily on Susan Johnson. While certainly not a tortured character, I do think there’s more to Hobson than you give the character credit for. I believe that the relationship he has with Arthur, in particular lines such as, “Incidentally, I love you,” sell that sufficiently.

      If your consternation arises from the rating, as I feared it might for many readers, I considered it and decided that the pleasantness warranted the rating. I left smiling, personally, and that worked for me. I gave “Horrible Bosses” 2.5 stars, and I thought the gleeful tone of this film brought it above that one. I gave “The Human Centipede” 3 stars, and strongly considered mirroring that rating because I do find the two films comparable (that probably sounds bizarre). But then I saw my 3.5 rating for “Transsiberian”, a film which I liked overall and thought did some things well, but didn’t blow me away.

      If we’re to argue, it would be on the basis that I think that “Arthur” did the humor thing well and made its characters cute enough, even as sneering butlers and raging alcoholics, that I enjoyed being with them.

      • Chris Meier says:

        I wrote the last reply in a drowsy, awakening state so I apologize if any of it is unclear. One thing I dislike about my reply is its failure to pinpoint exactly why I thought Arthur Bach was not funny.

        Since I am seeing him from the perspective of a bar employee of nearly 5 years, it only scratches the surface that this is a man who is 9 times out of 10 clearly “in the red” and should indefinitely be cut off from the service of alcoholic content. As someone who holds a theater degree, I’m also flat out stunned Dudley Moore was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. Yes, it was a bold choice to exaggerate his inebriation, but “bold” doesn’t always mean “correct.” The audience would more than likely have picked up the oh-so-subtle parallels with Jeckyll and Hyde from the script and its pacing; Moore’s rassp-p-py, slurrrry voice and slapstick spread over top of this is insulting to our intelligence. The complete change in delivery and over-reliance of stumbling also caused Moore to commit the crime of all crimes when playing drunk: ringing false.

        Drunk is an incredibly difficult state for an actor to convincingly play, especially for comedy’s sake, and when this type of performance is projected in close-ups on a giant screen, it’s like adding a pit of hungry alligators under a tightrope walker. Moore is admirable for taking on the role, but his carefree approach to the carefree character was a short cut that killed everything for me. When I think of great comical drunks of movies, my mind shoots immediately to James Stewart in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ or Johnny Depp in the first ‘Pirates’. I would put Bach in the company of “The Simpsons'” Barney Gumble (though the latter can have quite a poetic layer sometimes – maybe one that would’ve helped Bach gain my sympathy).

        In reply to the rest of your response, what caught my attention most is your bringing up Gielgud’s Hobson. I understand the father-son mimicry of his relationship – I feel the film absolutely spells it out – but I had trouble comprehending Hobson’s motivations for continuing it. I suppose the smartass’ opinion of Bach could have stemmed from sinister self-amusement to have a front row seat to this trainwreck and over time he found a heart a la the Grinch, but I don’t feel this is justifiable enough. The line you singled out – “Incidentally, I love you.” – then made something click… You don’t suppose Hobson was secretly gay, do you? It would certainly clear up my primary query and also make you very right about there being more to him than I thought. Is there a ‘Gods and Monsters’ type deal going on? I wonder…

        And the star-rating: Yes, I did of course find it too kind (especially with your confession of ignoring the technical aspects… I have no idea how you were able to avoid that soundtrack from hell). I hadn’t reached the point of comparing it to some of your other ratings, but then, I often feel doing that with any one critic’s reviews often results in tons of exhaustion and little payoff.

  2. Rhoda Meier says:

    As always, you guys are interesting and insightful. I’m chiming in only because I actually saw this Arthur, first run, in the theater! And I remember coming away from it disgusted and disappointed. No one was more surprised than I when it subsequently was nominated for awards. Even given the popularity (at the time) of using drunkeness as a comedy routine (anybody remember Foster Brooks’ Lovable Lush?), I found Arthur to be just pathetic. I didn’t care who he wound up with, and whether he got the money or did not. The only fun I got from the movie was the display of over-the-top lavish living, and of course, watching John Geilgud, who could make ANY role interesting to watch. The sound track was top-40 music at the time…. didn’t become Musak until years later. Anyway, I thought it was a forgettable film with little to recommend it. But it’s fun to read your takes on it!

  3. BILL GLASGOW says:

    your mom likes this movie more than me. not a huge dudley moore fan

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