19 DECEMBER 1981, Page 38


Duncan Fallo well

Arthur ('AA', selected cinemas from Boxing Day) As Anthony Burgess told me over a crepe Suzette earlier this year in Monte Carlo, England was never supposed to be the place where you did things; for Englishmen success was always in the wider world; so it is not only sensible but also historically correct for Dudley Moore to travel to Hollywood and become a star. That he has to reject England and say unflattering things about London being dead seems just an unnecessary neurosis for him to carry away, until you remember that he grew up in Dagenham and is therefore entitled to be distressed.

His recent move is only the latest displacement in a series which began as a teenager with his translation to Magdalen College, Oxford, a weird institution which specialises in high-grade outcasts like Oscar Wilde and the Duke of Windsor. Here he learned how to regard his club foot and stature of 5ft 2 1/2ins and leaden origins as facets of distinction but there's only so much even Magdalen can do and it comes as no surprise that Mr Moore has been in mental therapy since 1964 and is soon to start work on a comedy called Valium.

Tor me therapy is the most important thing in life,' he says. This simplicity is disarming, even disabling, but there may well be some truth in it: he first met Blake Edwards in a group session and it was this man, through the film 10, who helped Dudley Moore corner the market in screwed-up vulnerability during a lull in the Woody Allen industry, and turn into the latest teddy-bear to be marketed to America's mass lovelessness.

But therapy has its drawbacks. Tye met some very helpful, insightful people through it,' he has said and this reminds one of how high is the price of welladjustment in the USA. For a start you have to abandon all original forms of expression and start working in pure cliche. There is also substantial evidence that prolonged exposure to California can cause cirrhosis of the mind. Previously intelligent, alive people with urgent things to say and do before they die find themselves reduced to patio furniture and poolside puddles and zombies sipping orange juice. This is because a psyche without conflict can display no exertion and ceases to create: everything turns into upholstery, especially faces.

So what becomes pleasant for Dudley Moore may become increasingly characterless for the rest of us. Mental regression is of course greatly accelerated when the promotion machine gets hold of you (you cannot market people, only syndromes) and, as if by a natural law, the comedy of Arthur marks a step down from that of 10. In fact Arthur's writer and director, Steve Gordon, who is even keener on psychoplasty than Dudley Moore and sees his analyst daily, has written a film whose plot — playboy millionaire alcoholic (DM) falls for shoplifting waitress (Liza Minnelli) to the fury of his family — is hardly an excuse for an amusing collection of oneliners. As previously a writer for The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mash, Gordon knows how to distract an audience with a peptic display of triviality. The secret is to keep firing it at them so that they don't have a chance to think. It works for half an hour. Over the length of a film it becomes indistinguishable from hysteria.

Dudley Moore should know better how to deploy the various modes of his charm across the surface of 1 /2 hours — unlike Gordon, it's not his first film. But mere charm castrates. His performance, like the script, turns into a string of mannerisms and it is with a feeling close to melancholy that one realises one is watching a bunch of mental defectives twitching in a cage at the end of the world. Does modern comedy have to be as deracinated as this? Can the comic spirit sustain nothing larger than a wisecrack?

Liza Minnelli continues to play the part she always plays, just-ever-so-kooky Sally Bowles, but they haven't given her any songs to sing which was a mistake. Liza should never be allowed to fall back on mere acting, she needs at least one song to help her fill her space, although it should be noted that she does get better looking as she gets older. John Gielgud, in a performance as Arthur's valet which has also made him a star in America (for the first time), brings to the film a genuine strangeness. Why has he never done lonesco? He would be magnificent. In fact his performance is so good here that he throws the whole picture out of kilter. He seems to be acting in a quite different, much funnier production altogether.

As a piece of froth about the fantastically rich, Arthur has been compared to the Depression comedies of the Thirties. Well, second time around we are a bit more wised up and have a right to expect something with more edge. To this end, Dudley Moore and Woody Allen ought to make a film together very soon. They've both gone soft in the head lately and the nervous competition might sharpen them up.