“Arthur Newman” (review)

Stars Emily Blunt, Colin Firth, Anne Heche. Directed by Dante Ariola from a script by Becky Johnson. Rated R. 101 minutes. Critic’s grade: C

(review also available at Creative Loafing/Tampa)

For some, it amounts to a persistent fantasy: Shuck the old identity, and all that accumulated excess emotional and physical and financial baggage, and try on a new persona. After work one day, sail right on past the highway exit leading to one’s neighborhood, and head out to parts unknown. Be all that you can’t be, or couldn’t be, in your old life.

That’s essentially what former FedEx manager Wallace Avery (Colin Firth) does, with decidedly mixed results in Arthur Newman. The same might be said about the film, directed by first-time feature filmmaker Dante Ariola from a screenplay by Becky Johnston (Seven Years in Tibet, The Prince of Tides). The movie is a comic-tinged drama that’s uneven at best. At worst, it’s a road trip movie that’s surprisingly colorless and, well, often quite dull.

Is the film’s overall blandness an intentional reflection of the lead character’s emotional state, a physical representation of the low-level depression that seems to have descended on his life? Or is just a failing on the part of the filmmakers to create vivid dialogue and visuals that offer any sense of time or place? Feels like the latter.

"Arthur Newman"Wallace fakes his own death — a sudden disappearance from a beach near Jacksonville, during an impromptu camping trip — and sets off on his odyssey with little more than a few sets of Polo shirts and slacks, a book about golfing, a bag of cash, and a used Mercedes 380 SL convertible. If the wheels and loot are ill-gotten gain, it’s not explained.

He takes on a new identity, Arthur Newman, acquired with the help of illegal ID documents purchased from a small-time hood played by the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh — it’s a criminally brief role, just a single scene. The new man’s (hence the name) plan is to drive to Terre Haute, Indiana to take a job as a golf pro at a country club; Avery was offered the position earlier after helping a businessman dramatically improve his swing.

At a non-descript roadside motel, a plot device, er, stranger sure to shake up Newman’s world, comes crashing into his life. Michaela AKA “Mike” (Emily Blunt), a beautiful younger woman, has OD’d on cough medicine, and Wallace/Arthur practically saves her life, getting her to a hospital and overseeing her recovery. “Did I have sex with you?” Mike asks, in this movie’s version of meeting cute.

Arthur Newman, masquerading as something of a romantic comedy, is mostly concerned with themes of identity, not particularly well handled. Like Newman, Mike — real name: Charlotte — is pretending to be someone she isn’t (on another level, Firth and Blunt are both Brits playing Americans).

After riding together a day or two, the lost guy and the drifter girl begin playing at something like short-time identity theft. They observe the nuptials of an older couple, follow them home, wear their clothes and make love in their bed. Then the two repeat the shenanigans with other couples. Is it all supposed to be funny or creepy? It’s hard to tell, and that’s part of the problem with Ariola’s movie: the tone often shifts suddenly, without much rhyme or reason.

Identity issues, too, come into play with other characters, as Wallace/Arthur’s live-in girlfriend, effectively played by Anne Heche, and his son (Sterling Beaumont), try to sort out who they are, in light of the guy’s sudden’s reinvention as a mystery man; the friendship between the two is another odd, undeveloped strand in the film.

All of these goings-on might have added up to an engaging, appealingly quirky tale had the story and pacing been handled differently, and had the leads exhibited more than a shred of chemistry, romantic or otherwise. Unfortunately, Arthur Newman is flawed on both counts, a misfire distinguished only by its above-average acting performances.

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Tampa Movie Weekend: Backlash for “Pain & Gain”; “The Big Wedding,” “Mud,” “The Company You Keep,” “Arthur Newman,” “The Numbers Station”

“Pain & Gain,” Michael Bay’s “little” $26 million comedy-laced crime movie, has been generating a bit of anger along with the bad reviews. Real-life victims of South Florida’s musclehead Sun Gym Gang killers, portrayed in the film by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie, are complaining that Bay has used grisly murders merely as grist for comic relief.

Marc Schiller, a wealthy businessman who survived a month of torture at the hands of the thugs, has loudly protested about being characterized as an unscrupulous scammer, somehow deserving of his fate. “I don’t understand why they want to make me look like a bad guy,” he told the Miami New Times, the newspaper that drew attention for its coverage of the mid-’90s crimes. The sister of Frank Griga, who was beaten to death by gang members, has expressed her disgust with the Hollywood-style trivialization of the events. “To show these killers as a couple of funny, nice guys who made a couple of blunders is indecent.”

Meanwhile, Wahlberg and Johnson are defending their involvement. “We made the movie … for selfish reasons, to play characters that are so outrageous that you really get to go crazy with your performance and push the envelope a lot,” Wahlberg told the Tampa Bay Times. Said Johnson: “Keep in mind, too, that at the end of the day the individuals who committed these crimes paid for what they did, and they’re paying now. They got what they deserved.”

Also opening:

  • “The Big Wedding” — Nuptials-themed romantic comedy with a cast of stars (including some big ones); a “surprisingly hard” R, some have said; rotten, according to Rotten Tomatoes
  • “Mud” — Southern-fried indie drama starring Matthew McConaughey as a mysterious, maybe dangerous character befriended by two young boys; getting good buzzmud
  • “The Company You Keep” — Robert Redford-directed thriller that may or may not glamorize an aging domestic terrorist (Redford) — you know, like Weather Underground anarchist Bill Ayers, long-ago associate of Obama. Crackerjack cast: Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliott, Julie Christie)
  • “Arthur Newman” — Oddly shaped, largely underwhelming drama with Colin Firth as the title character, a sad guy who shucks his old life for a new identity, along the way finding something like love with a damaged woman played by Emily Blunt; partly set in Florida, with some sequences apparently shot there
  • “The Numbers Station” — Thriller starring the usually reliable John Cusack as a federal government killer tasked with the safety of a sexy cryptologist (Malin Akerman)

M. Emmet Walsh in “Arthur Newman”: Robbed?

Emmet Walsh, the great character actor, indeed does show up in the rather underwhelming comic drama “Arthur Newman,” which kicked around at festivals last year and is  now finally opening in the U.S.; Colin Firth and Emily Blunt, demonstrating not a shred of chemistry, star in the movie.walsh

The older actor nevertheless gets merely what amounts to a cameo in the film. Walsh, playing the part of a man who supplies false identification papers to the title character (Firth), appears only for a couple of minutes in a scene near the beginning of the film, Dante Ariola’s debut feature.

Were his scenes chopped back? If not, why hire the actor and waste him on one tiny sequence?

He wuz robbed.

Walsh, 78, has a much larger role in the bizarre thriller “Love Sick Love.” He also plays a significant role in the forthcoming “Boiling Pot,” a tense drama set on a college campus during the 2008 election.