‘Arthur,’ annotated: Some comedies are funnier when you watch them in Tompkins Square Park

'Arthur.' (Steven Boone)
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I was leaving the Trinity Church soup kitchen last Wednesday afternoon when I heard a guy yelling across its courtyard, "…and they hand out free snacks!"

He was calling out to a woman on the sidewalk near the church gate. She was tapping her head and mouthing his words to herself, trying to fix them in memory as she crossed the street, heading into Tompkins Square Park.

"Tomorrow night!" he said. "And they're showing Arthur this time!"

"Who is?" I butted in.

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"Verizon," he said. "If you been around here last few months, you seen them putting in fiber-optic cable everywhere. Now they're showing free movies in the parks so people'll wanna subscribe to their cable."

"The old Arthur or the new Arthur?"

"Not sure. Could be either one."

I love the old Arthur. It was one of those silly, stupid-smart comedies in heavy rotation when I was a young cable TV addict in the '80s. I haven't seen the Russell Brand remake, but the trailer for it got on my nerves. Russell Brand, a comedian known for cutesy loquaciousness, steps into the lovable-drunk role Dudley Moore made charming in 1981. But I wasn't doing anything terribly important the following night, so I vowed to stop by the park at dusk, to see which Arthur was playing.

My tipster, John, who looked like some kind of adventurer in his camouflage boonie hat, was delighted to let me in on the scoop. He showed me a schedule of free summer movies that Verizon and a channel called EPIX HD were screening all over the city. Classics like Jurassic Park in Williamsburg and Annie Hall at Coney Island, along with relatively obscure fare like Biutiful in Long Island City. He then proceeded to give a rundown of what sounded like every free event happening on every Manhattan pier this summer. I'm not like the lady he had just briefed; I couldn't retain any of it. I said to him, "Man, you know how to get quality of life outta this place for cheap."

He said, "You got to. It's the summer, man, gotta get outside," adding that he even finds a way to catch the pricey events. He explained how he was planning to experience the upcoming Aretha Franklin concert for only the price of a Long Island Rail Road ticket, by listening to the show from outside the open-air Jones Beach Theater. He brings his own beer in a tall Styrofoam Dunkin' Donuts cup and, um, smoking apparatus.

"Yeah, I know how to live, man," he said.

We went to sit in the park, to trade quality-of-life "big fish" stories. I told him about the pizza shop in Midtown that heats up surplus pies every night at closing time and hands out gourmet slices for free. He told me about great bars with cheap drinks. I told him about free admission and pay-what-you-wish nights at museums. One quality-of-life boon to New York City that we both felt trumped all others was the beautiful women "everywhere around." John, a German-Italian who has the air of a classic ladies' man (even though he was dressed like a sniper or a narc), practically sang about our greatest natural resource.

And he actually does sing, just for the joy of it, in Washington Square Park. He said he's down with other musician friends who play the parks, like his boy who wheels in a giant amp hooked up to an iPod on a docking station: "It's not California. You gotta take advantage of the warm weather."

And when it rains?

"I go to my social club by the Brooklyn Navy yard to shoot pool, eat pistachio nuts, Swedish Fish candy, pretzels…."

He liked to list out the most specific, simplest pleasures. Swedish Fish. Nothing that costs 10 cents brings more joy than a red gelatin Swedish Fish.

"I'm not rich," he said, evenly. "I mean, I should have more money saved, but I'm still doing better than a lot of other people in this park."

It's funny that the next day I was sitting in the outdoor seating of a Starbucks in the village with my pal Luis, both of us dead broke but sufficiently well-groomed to pass for tech nerds as we huddled over my netbook to discuss a creative project. A friend had covered him for an iced coffee before leaving; I was drinking the four-ounce free iced latte samples. A panhandler came up and comically huddled with us, saying, "Whatever it is, it's some serious business y'all brothers working out there. Howbout you spare a little something—"

"I'm flat broke," I said.

He looked to Luis, who shrugged and said, "Sorry, man."

The guy wandered off, muttering apologies and platitudes through gritted teeth.

It's that easy to pass for a well-off New Yorker. Folks have been slow to grasp how almost everything that conveys the appearance of affluence or at least middle-class status is affordable to even the poorest.

Technology is now dirt cheap: Those homeless men who don't own a smart phone have at least a dumb one with a good prepaid calling plan. Those who can't even afford that have the infamous "Obama Phone", a basic cell phone that telecom companies offer to people with incomes near, at or below the poverty line. (The scheme became a rallying point for conservatives who believe that Obama the Islamo-Socialist Pickpocket is using their money to give phones to bums, even though the government has nothing whatsoever to do with them.)

The means to maintain hygiene are available at any dollar store; there are decent looking outfits at discount stores, thrift shops and church giveaways. The only essential thing we can't afford in New York, really, is a place to stay.

After my confab with Luis, I went to dinner at Bowery Mission in the Lower East Side (not to be confused with the Bowery Mission Transitional Center in Alphabet City). There I ate pasta, meatballs and salad, with cake for dessert. By that time, dusk was approaching, so I started out for Tompkins Square Park. Time for Arthur.

But just two doors down from the Mission is The New Museum, and as I passed it, I remembered it's free on Thursday nights after 7 p.m. Still feeling in the spirit of John the freebie connoisseur, I went in. Some kind of exhibit centered around pre-Glasnost Russian nostalgia was going on. Apparently this nostalgia was most readily expressed in snapshots of naked, dirty (literally) Russian ladies. But I always appreciate the New Museum's air conditioning, bright, startled lighting in pale Kubrickian spaces and its mirrored elevator. To step, within 30 seconds, from the world of the Bowery into a portal of art-world pretension is a real trip.

An hour later in Tompkins Square Park, I stood on line for the free stuff. Organizers offered the choice of a pretzel, a bag of popcorn or an Italian ice, one per person. I chose the pretzel and sat down on a bench facing one of the screens. The pretzel was fresh and delicious. (Only the makers of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, with their robotic soda fountains offering every soft drink known to man at the New York press screening, had impressed me more.)

It was the end of dusk, and the hipsters and young professionals were sprawled out on the grass watching a pre-show short film—some kind of mumblecore comedy that was a bit too subdued for this noisy park. But once the Burt Bacharach theme song (not the Oscar-winning Bacharach-Christopher Cross ballad "Best That You Can Do," but the comical sax-instrumental "Money") started up, folks applauded and whistled. It was the "real" Arthur.

Where I sat, there were quite a few real-life folks as pleasantly toasted as Arthur was for most of the movie. These were some of the park regulars who sit out a high or hangover on the benches nearly every day.

A group of teenage Alphabet City girls paid little attention to the movie, and were clearly just there to eat ices on a hot night while pointing out cute boys.

A Hispanic man and his three sons listened to a fiftyish woman who dispensed running commentary about the movie.

"I love that butler," she said when Sir John Gielgud appeared as Hobson, dispensing wisecracks to Moore's aging rich brat. "He was good as the butler in Trading Places, too."

Her husband agreed, and they relived the moments when, with Sir John's help, Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd "beat those mean, rich motherfuckers at their own game, had 'em crying at the end."

Except that it wasn't Gielgud but another classy British actor, Denholm Elliot (best known as an Indiana Jones sidekick) who played the butler in that one. Sometimes our pop-memory wires get crossed like that, like when I misremember Dennis Haysbert's shit-talking Marine captain in Jarhead as Keith David.

But there's no mistaking Dudley Moore for anybody else. His performance in Arthur makes alcoholism look like good times. Just as singular is Liza Minnelli as the poor girl who falls desperately in love with him, despite his drinking problem and arranged engagement to a socialite. Both actors were Muppet-cute and endearing at the time, and from the moment they meet, you want them to be together. The movie simply constitutes a long, pleasant wait.

I was shocked to see a very familiar sight in the film's climactic wedding scene: Saint Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue. It's where the Coalition for the Homeless serves bagels, soup and sandwiches from the 51st Street side of that church, six days a week. I have been there often, whenever provisions ran low, so it was a bit disorienting to see how little the block had changed since 1981. In the movie, it's the place where Arthur finally decides to risk losing his relatives' patronage by calling off the socialite wedding. No wedding, no inheritance. This means he is ready to leave all his wealth behind for the woman he loves. She, in turn, doesn't mind remaining a working-stiff waitress as long as they get to be together.

"They done lost their damn mind," said a clean-cut 20-something young black man a few benches down.

His girlfriend laughed at him: "You never saw this one?"

She spoiled it for him: Of course Arthur was going to hold onto his wealth by the end and ride off with Liza in his chauffeured limo.

"Poor drunks do not find love, Arthur," Hobson had warned Arthur much earlier in the film. "Poor drunks have very few teeth, they urinate outdoors, they freeze to death in summer. I can't bear to think of you that way."

Neither could filmmakers and Dudley Moore fans in the Reagan Era.

When the credits rolled and the film's signature Christopher Cross tune came on, our impromptu trivia expert sang along over the applause. She was raspy and out of tune and didn't quite know the words, but she could project with power: If you get caught between the world and New York City / Best that you can do / Best that you can do / Is faaall in love.

In my room that night, I learned from IMDb that the writer and director of Arthur, Steve Gordon, died of heart failure a little over a year after completing it. It was his one and only film, now a free gift to New Yorkers on one odd night, 30 years later. I wondered what he would make of all this.

Steven Boone is a film critic who has been writing for Capital about his experiences with homelessness.