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.
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.