Now this has to be one of the oddest box office happenings since Mary Hart first beamed up her Miss America sparkle on Entertainment Tonight. I mean, really: When was the last time an actor starred in two movies that took the number one and number two slots — and he still looked like a loser? Hard to say, but that’s exactly what happened to the foppishly eccentric British cutup Russell Brand this week. He starred in a remake of Arthur, the drunken-rich-goofball romantic comedy that people still remember fondly from 30 years ago, when it featured the spit-take giggles of Dudley Moore. The movie — let’s not beat around the martini shaker — opened with a resounding thud. It’s not just that the $12.5 million it made was significantly below the $18 million that had been predicted. It’s that the $18 million “expectation” was itself a rather pathetic lowball figure, at least for a project that had the nostalgic pedigree, the built-in audience affection, and the ’80s-update curiosity factor that Arthur did — and one that was clearly geared to launch Brand into orbit as a major brand.
It didn’t happen. Of course, the movie that beat out Arthur for the top spot also starred Russell Brand — which you’d think would have cushioned the blow, except that the chart-topping picture in question was a piece of kiddie cardboard crappola called Hop, featuring Brand as the voice of a snarky slacker Easter Bunny who doesn’t get one really choice or witty line. In other words: It’s exactly the sort of movie that Eddie Murphy would sign on for when his stock in Hollywood is low — the kind that makes its star seem a little desperate even if the film is a hit. Brand as Arthur getting KO’d by Brand the kitschy-cute rock & roll bunny rabbit just added insult to opening-weekend injury.
The question is, why didn’t Arthur do better? Sure, the movie wasn’t very good, but lots of mediocre comedies have made piles of money. The box office performance of Arthur was a de facto referendum on how American moviegoers feel about Russell Brand, and for the moment, at least, their view does not appear to be encouraging. So what is it about him?
In my review of Arthur, I said that the problem with Brand is that “he doesn’t connect with anyone on screen,” and I certainly think that’s a major stumbling block for anyone who’s out to sustain a movie character — even a broad, outsize, foolish one — for 90 minutes. But I also wrote that I started out by thinking Brand was an inspired comic artist (back when I saw first him in Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and that I’ve liked him, and laughed at him, less and less each time I’ve seen him. I don’t think that’s just because of the narcissism he projects. I think what doesn’t wear well over time about Russell Brand is that he’s always the same. At every moment. In every fliply jaded line, every mock leer, every dissolute sprawl of his body. His whole personality is a routine. He’s like a member of Spinal Tap who’s convinced himself he’s a prince, and with that super-showy, consonant-swallowing accent of his (the sounds are Cockney but the lolling delivery is pure bored aristocracy), he never lets you forget — for a moment — his whole high/low, smart/dumb, innocent/devilish…thing. He belongs on a fatally hip TV commercial, because he never, ever stops being a sauntering, insinuating advertisement for himself.
I first noticed the creeping tiresomeness of the Brand Effect when I saw him host the Feb. 13 edition of Saturday Night Live, in what was easily the worst episode of that show in two years. When he first came out on stage, the producers simply let him do a monologue, which was an okay idea, only I couldn’t really tell what he was talking about. It was something about how tight his pants were, but he sounded more naggingly, parochially English than any English comedian I’d ever heard, and it didn’t translate. Then, as the show lurched on, I noticed something curious about Brand: Since he had to play a bunch of different characters, they had him in the usual array of wigs — but as soon as you took away those long flowy Jesus of SoHo locks of his, he was a little lost. Minus the cool hair, his high-cheekboned angularity can look a touch ghoulish, and he loses his vibe. Without it, in sketch after sketch, he bombed.
I still think that Brand has a rascally talent. In a funny way, I could see him doing a movie like Rush Hour, one that paired him with, you know, Seann William Scott or Jake Gyllenhaal, someone who could break up his rhythms. Brand will get another shot, and he deserves it. For right now, though, it seems increasingly clear that he’s going to have a hard time making it as a movie star if he insists on playing…Russell Brand. He may now have to do something more audacious than any of his jokes. He may have to become an actor.
So what’s your take on Russell Brand? Do you love him, hate him, are you getting tired of him, or do you want to see more of him? And why didn’t you go to see Arthur?
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There’s one other reason that I think Arthur tanked that has precious little to do with its star. The movie is a comedy about a guy who drinks around the clock and makes a big, sloppy, flaunting joke of it, and while it certainly recognizes that Arthur has a problem, I think audiences are less comfortable with a drunk as “harmless” hero than they were 30 years ago. In the original, Dudley Moore very lightly sketched in Arthur’s man-child pathology, with the bottle as his richie-rich version of mommy’s milk. But Moore, a classically trained farceur, also squeezed plenty of old-fashioned Whee! Look at me! I’m sloshed! jokes out of Arthur’s predicament. The movie had one foot in the world of guiltless imbibing, one in the emerging 12-step era. The new Arthur makes drinking seem, if anything, a little less of a big deal, because Brand plays Arthur as a blitzed idiot even when he’s not drunk. Nevertheless, he isn’t much of a role model, and these days that can shove a movie character right to the margins.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman