The Nation's Pulse

Pale Imitations

Remakes are the best way to ruin a movie.

By 5.3.11

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On the web, movie-goers can find lists of movie remakes the list-makers believe to be better than the originals. I've just reviewed a list of a dozen Part IIs purported to be better than the first efforts. My guess is that discriminating TAS readers would come up with lists of more modest length.

The author of the list I just consulted had to cheat even to come up with a dozen. He included the 1957 Ben-Hur as a remake, though even most film majors wouldn't know a silent version of that epic was made in 1925. And the original 1951 Angels in the Outfield, against which the 1994 Disney boy/baseball movie is boosted, wasn't even a classic. I suppose Ahnuld's 1991 True Lies, available daily on more cable channels than Antiques Roadshow, holds some attraction for those who prefer watching The Terminator machine-gun bad guys to the original French farce. Jamie Lee Curtis's considerable assets are also points in this one's favor (and can be enjoyed with the sound muted when one wearies of automatic weapons fire).

There are doubtless all manner of financial reasons for re-making beloved movies with a little age on them: a built-in audience, after-market opportunities such as DVD sales and cable. Then there's the overseas market. I'll let the accounting majors among us sort this out. And, perhaps closer to the bone, remakes cut down on the amount of original thinking -- always thin on the ground in Hollywood -- required to get product on the big screen.

But aesthetically, the remakes are almost always a disappointment. Show of hands: How many really believe Steve Martin's Inspector Clouseau in the 2006 remake of The Pink Panther was anywhere near as funny as Peter Sellers in the 1963 original. 
I thought so. Me neither. The jury is in. The best thing to do with a beloved movie classic is to watch and enjoy it from time to time, discuss it if the matter comes up, and otherwise leave it alone. The worst thing to do is to try to remake it, as the magic that made the classic a classic will almost certainly not make a second appearance.

Magic was conspicuously absent in the Coen Brothers' superfluous True Grit, out in December (should have been called "New Grit"). The 1969 original won the Duke his only best actor award and was, save for some wooden acting by Glenn Campbell, a clear five on a five-point scale.

The Coen-heads' product, while not as execrable as Fargo or Raising Arizona, is pretty lame. Their Rooster Cogburn, played by the able Jeff Bridges, looks more like the town's most dissolute bag-lady with a beard than like the Duke's tough western marshal.

In theaters now is another pale remake of a first-rate original. It pains me to recommend that TAS readers not go to a movie with Helen Mirren in it. She's a talented and versatile actress, and even in her mid-sixties she remains, to use the technical phrase, a hot ticket. But fans of the estimable Helen can better spend their time and money by renting The Queen or Calendar Girls than by abusing two otherwise good hours with the new Arthur.

Dudley Moore's 1981 Arthur was charming and funny. The movie was pure entertainment, with no pretentions to seriousness. (For my movie ticket and rental money, and contrary to the prevailing view in Hollywood, the best movies are found among those that don't attempt to be serious.) It's a fine way to spend a couple of hours, thanks to a very funny script, and a tour de force of physical comedy by the diminutive and graceful Moore. John Gielgud's acerbic but loving old snob of a retainer, played with just the right amount of sarcastic asperity, is priceless.

Russell Brand's 2011 Arthur, by contrast, is clunky and not very funny. It's the same story. Preposterously rich and indulged soak Arthur Bach is pressured by his family to marry a woman he doesn't love for business reasons. He rebels and pursues the woman he really fancies. But the life just isn't in the new edition. 

Compared to the smart and very watchable Moore, the out-sized Brand, who resembles a younger and less dissipated version of Tiny Tim, looks out of place no matter what the scene. Grace has been replaced by adolescent gawkiness.

Even with slurring his words, as any proper drunk does, Moore could deliver a line. Brand, by comparison, has poor enunciation, and is often hard to understand, even in scenes were he's supposed to be sober.

Then there's Greta Gerwig as Naomi, Arthur's true love 2011, who I found oppressively earnest and wholesome. The would-be writer of children's books is more PC, but less interesting to watch than Liza Minnelli's Linda.

This character and Brand's Arthur going to AA to cure his alcoholism are just signs of how preachy our times have become. There's nothing really wrong with AA or writing children's books. Much can be said for both. But it demonstrates how difficult it is for us today to just take a couple of hours off and have a good time without at least a little uplift being directed at us. Alcoholism is no joke. But Dudley Moore was a really funny drunk. Why can't we just watch him and enjoy it?

A few decades out, some bicoastal film guy (or gal) will toy with the idea of remaking a well-loved movie from our time (though I'd find it difficult to come up with a list of contemporary classics). I'll probably be an angel by the time this happens, but my advice from beyond to that future dreamer is: Mix yourself a drink, stretch out on the most comfortable chair available, and wait till the urge goes away. If this takes a while, you could top off your drink and watch the Duke's True Grit or Moore's Arthur while you wait.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.