— How can you distinguish the 1981 comedy “Arthur” from its similarly titled remake, opening in theaters Friday? Well, the easy answer is that the original is hilarious and sweet, and the new one is leaden and charmless. But if you want the full details, here’s a complete breakdown:
1981: Arthur Bach, played by Dudley Moore, who was 46 when the movie came out, is a charming drunk and directionless wastrel. Asked what he does for a living, he replies, “I race cars, I play tennis, I fondle women, but I have weekends off and I am my own boss!” It’s a character that wouldn’t have worked in the hands of a lesser actor, but Moore makes him rakishly lovable.
2011: Arthur Bach, played by Russell Brand, 35, is an obnoxious drunk and slacker, given to boisterous displays of money-wasting like wrecking a replica Batmobile on Wall Street, giving away $78,000 from an ATM, and renting out Grand Central Station for 45 minutes to woo a girl. Brand is a lesser actor.
1981: Linda is a waitress and would-be actress — she and Arthur meet cute when she shoplifts a tie at Bergdorf Goodman and he talks the store detective out of arresting her. Showbiz veteran Liza Minnelli, a Tony- and Oscar-winner, plays Linda. She's a working-class tough cookie, but she and Arthur laugh a lot, and their chemistry is palpable.
2011: Naomi is an unlicensed tour guide and would-be children’s book author — she and Arthur meet cute when he talks the police out of arresting her for obstructing traffic in Grand Central. “Mumblecore” veteran Greta Gerwig, an Independent Spirit Award nominee, plays Naomi. Naomi's a warm-and-fuzzy hipster type, and her propensity for girlish clothing meshes with Arthur’s habit of screening Pepe LePew cartoons 24/7 in his home theater. Her interest in Arthur almost seems more anthropological than romantic — she observes him more than she falls in love with him.
1981: Sir John Gielgud won an Oscar for his performance as Hobson, Arthur’s no-nonsense but loving butler. His one-liners are brilliantly hilarious. When Arthur makes a bedridden Hobson put on a black cowboy hat, the result is an incongruous but iconic image. Hobson keeps the plot going by bringing a fancy dress to Linda and encouraging her to show up at Arthur’s engagement party.
2011: Dame Helen Mirren plays Arthur’s no-nonsense but loving nanny. She gets a few good lines and does her best with the rest. When Arthur makes a bedridden Hobson put on a Darth Vader helmet, it feels like a pale reflection of the same scene from the earlier film, as does Hobson’s visit to Naomi, which serves no plot-related purpose.
1981: Ted Ross (“The Wiz”) co-stars as Arthur’s chauffeur — he wears a traditional uniform, but he’s constantly amused by his joke-cracking boss.
2011: Luis Guzmán takes over the chauffeur role, but the character seems so dim that you wonder how he passed his driver’s license test.
1981: Arthur's distant father, played by Thomas Barbour, and adorably crotchety grandmother, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, want Arthur to grow up, so they inform him that he must marry heiress Susan Johnson or be disinherited.
2011: Arthur’s distant mother, played by Geraldine James, doesn’t feel like she can entrust Arthur with the massive family business, so she informs him that he must marry executive Susan Johnson or be disinherited.
The rich girl
1981: Jill Eikenberry plays Susan as a somewhat mealy-mouthed rich girl with a codependent streak — she thinks her love will stop Arthur from drinking. It’s a somewhat underwritten, but still sympathetic, character.
2011: Jennifer Garner’s Susan is an ambitious climber with a sex-kitten streak — she enjoys sleeping with Arthur but her real interest is taking over the company and gaining the social status that will come with the Bach name. It’s a terribly written character, a gross caricature who becomes a convenient whipping post in the film’s final act.
1981: Referred to as “a criminal” by Arthur’s relatives, Burt Johnson, played by Stephen Elliott, is a big-game hunter with a frightening temper, and he’ll do anything to make sure his little girl is happy. At a key moment in the story, he appears more than capable of murdering Arthur.
2011: A self-described “Pittsburgh contractor” who ruthlessly elbowed his way to the top, Burt Johnson, Nick Nolte here, builds a skyscraper with the express purpose of being able to spy on Arthur’s penthouse apartment, and he threatens his prospective son-in-law with a table saw. His biggest laughs come early, after he shrugs off being accidentally shot with a nail gun.
1981: Arthur’s drinking is something of a concern to those around him, but it’s never addressed in a serious way. Moore’s performance makes the character charming enough that we forgive him his excesses.
2011: Arthur’s drinking is presented as the root of his many problems, and we see him in two AA meetings over the course of the film. Which is all well and good, but if you’re going to try to tether an old-fashioned screwball comedy like “Arthur” to reality, why bother?
Alonso Duralde is a frequent contributor to TODAY.com.