One of the first movies I have a memory of my parents renting on VHS and watching is “Arthur”, and when I was that age, I remember being mildly amused by the short, goofy guy with the funny accent. None of the jokes made sense to my six-year old mind, and the plot didn’t do much for me, either. But I remembered it because I was amused by the goofy guy with the funny accent. I’d seen bits and pieces of it on cable years later — usually a heavily-edited version on the local Fox affiliate on a Saturday afternoon, always parts of the second half of the movie — and from those bits, I determined it was a romantic “comedy” and thus, should be avoided at all costs. The theme song by King of Yacht Rock Christopher Cross didn’t do anything to convince me otherwise.
I’ve since taken on an admiration for the work of Dudley Moore, and decided to cue up “Arthur” on Netflix to watch it, beginning to end, for the first time as an adult. The result was a revelation, for the first 45 minutes of the movie are among the funniest I’ve seen in a movie. Seriously, its a virtuoso performance, with one liners coming so fast, so furiously, you’re still laughing as the next one is delivered and occasionally you miss it.
Arthur spends virtually all of those first 45 minutes in some state of drunken stupor, but unlike annoying drunks that you encounter when you’re sober at a party in real life, trying to tell you stories they believe to be funny but are actually anything but, because this is a movie, those stories are funny. And Arthur is funny. So is his butler, Hobson, who reacts to all of this with gruff matter-of-fact insults that while different in tone from Arthur, are no less hilarious, as when he says to a hooker Arthur has picked up and who says very little, “You have a wonderful economy with words. I look forward to your next syllable with great eagerness.”
One of my favorite scenes happens early in the film, where Arthur invites that hooker to join him for dinner at the Plaza, but once they’re seated, he struggles to remember who she is, or why she is there, so he drunkenly — and loudly — questions her. She tells him that her mother died when she was six, to which Arthur yells out while banging on the table, “Son of a bitch! Don’t they know what that does to kids?” She calmly replies, “And my father raped me when I was 12.” Arthur inquisitively, innocently, answers “So you had six relatively good years?” All while the patrons at the Plaza look on with classic glances of annoyance.
The plot, roughly, is that Arthur is the heir to a $750 Million fortune if he marries the upper-class woman his parents have chosen for him. He detests her, but his family, believing she will force him to grow up, push for the arranged marriage anyway. His days consist of hungover baths in the mornings where he drinks martinis in the bath tub, followed by being driven around in a limo by his butler, in a two-pronged quest to both find true love and to stay drunk.
Of course, as I can attest full well, its tough to find love when you’re drunk. So its a vicious circle that Arthur is blissfully unaware of. The entire dynamic between the characters in the movie can be summed up in this one exchange:
Executive: “He gets all that money. Pays his family back by…by…by bein’ a stinkin’ drunk. It’s enough ta make ya sick.”
Hobson: “I really wouldn’t know, sir. I’m just a servant.”
Hobson: “On the other hand, go screw yourself.”
Hobson lobs insult after insult at both Arthur and his series of lady friends, yet whenever anyone else does the same, he turns his poison tongue their direction. He’s exactly what I always wished Alfred in the 1990s Batman movies was, just once: a sharp-witted comedian who realizes how ridiculous things around him are, and isn’t afraid to say so.
The movie shifts tone when Arthur meets a waitress, Linda, who he has just witnessed stealing a tie from a department store. Of course, he falls in love with her, much to the consternation of his family and to the woman he is about to marry. Linda is played by Liza Minelli, who for people like me that know her only from the reality-TV tabloid stories in recent years, brings a surprising grittiness to the role. Her decidedly working-class father, who spends the entire movie in a tank top, is played by Barney Miller…better known now as the actor who played Seinfeld’s dad, Morty. Here he steals a scene by crying uncontrollably when he learns his daughter has turned down Arthur’s $100,000 gift in lieu of a relationship.
Leading up to that scene is the one part of the movie that is terribly dated — a stumbling drunk Arthur not only climbing behind the wheel of his car, but continuing to drink while driving. The tone is supposed to be endearing, as the odyssey leads to him nearly wrecking his car, parking the car on the lawn of Linda’s apartment, and ultimately, stumbling up the stairs to her door. This was no doubt intended to be funny, and in 1981 it probably was to a great many folks. It doesn’t quite come across that way in 2010.
Most of the latter half of the movie is fairly standard romantic-comedy fare, with some funny gags and some poignant moments as the characters weave their way to the (inevitable) ending. In that way its a terrific date movie, because you get both an uproarious comedy and a nice love story all in one package. Its much more than a story about a short, goofy guy with a funny accent. Its a damn funny movie that left me humming the lyrics to “Best That You Can Do”, cursing Christopher Cross while saluting Dudley Moore for a comedic masterpiece.