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As ‘Arthur’ arrives, is excess still funny?

THE BIG QUESTION is a weekly feature in which we’re going to examine issues and ideas that are important to our industry as a whole.

I was talking back and forth with someone the other night about some new films we’d each seen, and I mentioned “Arthur” and the person messaged back, “I hear Arthur is not even a drunk.  True?”

The film opens on Friday.  And this person, who works in media, who no doubt sees a ton of advertising and marketing and trailers and clips and whatnot, still doesn’t know for sure if Arthur drinks or not.

To be clear, just as in the original film, Arthur drinks pretty much non-stop through the entire film.  He is a raging lush.  You could call the film “Raging Lush” and it would be completely appropriate.  He is a silly drunk.  He’s the kind of drunk who buys a Batman outfit, a real Batmobile, and then has his chauffeur run from the cops while driving dressed as Robin, plastered the entire time.  He’s the kind of drunk who just goes staggering around in public like an astronaut from the planet Privilege, having a laugh at pretty much everyone and wasted the entire time.  He’s always got a bottle or a flask or a glass in hand.  Arthur is not just a drunk.  He’s Alpha Drunk.  And he makes it look like loads of fun.
That’s why it’s sort of nonsense when there’s a quick capitulation in the film’s last ten minutes towards the notion of AA and sobriety and reforming his ways.  The film doesn’t earn that ending.  It doesn’t even try.  It doesn’t have any interest in painting alcohol as a negative until the moment where they have to do it because it is expected of them.  Up to that moment, that precise about-face, “Arthur” makes drinking look like a gas.

So why is it that there’s nothing in the trailers to the film or the general marketing for the movie that suggests this is that same fun-loving drunk?

Are we in an age now where excess is no longer an acceptable lifestyle for our comic leads?

If Johnny Depp plays Nick Charles in “The Thin Man,” is he going to be dropping in for AA meetings between cases?  Surely not.  After all, he’s played Hunter S. Thompson at full tilt, and his Jack Sparrow always seems half in the bag.  Surely Depp is attracted to the role precisely because he gets to be Sherlock Holmes with a highball, a great detective who is also a prodigious and impressive drinker.  That’s what made William Powell’s performance so iconic, that light-on-his-toes-but-oh-so-drunk charm that is woven into the fabric of what “The Thin Man” is.

I would have said the same of “Arthur,” though, and I thought as the movie was chugging along that it was impressive to see a studio actually let this character simply be himself, without punishment or preaching.  And then the ending arrives, and it’s apparent that they couldn’t do it.  They had to make it a problem instead of simply part of who Arthur is.

There was a time when a guy like Foster Brooks could make a career out of being drunk.  Dean Martin’s persona in the public eye was focused on a larger-than-life version of himself, with his drinking played as endearing.  It was an acceptable archetype, one of many that was part of most comedies.  “The Andy Griffith Show,” about as wholesome a program as I’ve ever seen, features Otis the town drunk, and he’s presented as a predictable part of the ecosystem of Mayberry.  Shakespeare played with the drunken fool in his works.  That’s how far back we go with the basic type, and now, today, when the character appears, he is defanged.  Inevitably and always.  He has to be… right?

After all, we are smack dab in the middle of one of the most literal periods of media consumption ever, as if we’ve lost our ability to process even the most gentle of complex ideas.  We seem to have made the agreement that if we see a character do something in a movie and we like that character at all, then the movie is telling us this is the way we should behave.  At some point, we stopped understanding portrayal and confusing it with endorsement.

Personally, I think excess should be part of the vocabulary of performance, without any built in regret or “message,” and denying that just draws attention to itself.  When you see Russell Brand go through his 12-step montage, eventually reaching him beaming about his six-month chip being “his favorite coin of all time,” it’s hard not to roll your eyes.  Brand is famously sober himself, and I applaud that as a choice he made.  But Arthur, the character, does not need to be a platform for that message, no matter who’s playing him.  It is a studio note, an overly cautious note, and entirely indicative of the moment.  There will come a time when we’re on the other side of this behavior and we’ll look at films from this era and that hyper-morality will be one of the things that most clearly dates the films.  It’s interesting that his movie “Get Him To The Greek” allowed him to play the character totally off the wagon and unrepentant, but that it also made him seem really sleazy and crappy in its last act.  It’s like the only way you’re allowed to like the user is if they renounce it at the last convenient moment.

In preparing this article, I went looking for a photo of Russell Brand as Arthur holding a drink.  And I couldn’t find one.  That’s amazing to me.  That is a very carefully orchestrated effort, and quite telling.  Archetypes survive.  Cultural cowardice passes.  But at the moment, can you think of a better example of trying to have things both ways than an Arthur in recovery?  Sort of says it all to me.

By Drew McWeeny – Can you let a character overconsume without having to punish them?



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