Two lost souls on the highway of life—that’s what a well-acted but benign little trifle called Arthur Newman is about. Wallace Avery (Colin Firth) is a meek, unhappy man who decides to fake his own death, leaving his wallet and passport behind on a Florida beach, and starts over again with a new identity as a golf pro named Arthur Newman. Before he can erase the past and escape his old self, he crosses paths with a Goth vagrant named “Mike” (Emily Blunt), who is lolling around a motel pool in a daze, having just stolen an automobile and overdosed on cough syrup. For reasons that do not entirely convince, they hit the road together. It’s 35 minutes into the film before she gets around to asking “Who are you?”—a question everyone else has been wondering since the opening credits. It takes the entire film to find out.
Wallace was a sad sack wasting away in a dull management job at American Express who left behind a spiteful ex-wife, a young son who won’t even speak to him and a new girlfriend (Anne Heche as another defeated character) who is already tiring of his restless anomie and sullen indifference. As Arthur Newman, he’s on his way to a new job as a golf instructor at a swank country club in Terre Haute, Indiana. Similarly dysfunctional, Mike has her own secrets, namely a mother and a twin sister who both suffer from schizophrenia. Showing signs of becoming a chip off the old block, she evades emotional needs with sarcasm, is terrified of relationships and incidentally has no place else to go. Despite their age difference, she tags along for the ride.
On their cross-country journey, Arthur/Wallace and Mike, trying to ward off death by loneliness, break into empty houses, helping themselves to the clothes, food and beds of total strangers. It’s an outrageous game of role playing and a pathetic stab at lovemaking within the safety of other people’s identities, the danger of getting caught only heightening the adventure. How long can they keep it up? First-time director Dante Ariola shows an admirable aptitude for observing the small, sweet quirky things people do and say, and the script by Becky Johnston (The Prince of Tides) provides quiet, reflective moments of dialogue. The film is sometimes touching but more often episodic, an odyssey that becomes part road movie and part metaphor for American ennui. Unfortunately, each episode grows more disheartening, and neither character is developed enough to sustain audience interest for 101 minutes of playing time. The movie goes nowhere.
Since winning the Academy Award for The King’s Speech, Colin Firth’s film career has hit a few speed bumps. A farce called Gambit (a remake of an old Shirley MacLaine-Michael Caine turkey) has been on the shelf for more than a year, and Main Street, filmed three years ago in Durham, N.C., has never been released at all. Arthur Newman won’t do much to buck this trend, but Firth is always charming, polished and agreeable to watch. With heart and soul, he and Emily Blunt bounce off each other in a pair of beautifully modulated performances that personify understatement (and in perfect American accents). But the resolution for both characters, in a finale that turns disappointingly conventional, is so sad that it left me depressed beyond hope. Their road trip becomes a tiresome journey of self-discovery that is more about self-avoidance, negating the fun along the way.
Written by Becky Johnston
Directed by Dante Ariola
Starring Emily Blunt, Colin Firth and Anne Heche
Running time: 96 mins.