In the United States, land of infinite opportunity and reinvention, we are conditioned to believe that we can be whoever we want, whenever we choose. In the well-acted but ultimately unmemorable “Arthur Newman,” Colin Firth stars as an American who invests fully in that idea and finally decides to cash in on it.
Firth plays Wallace Avery, a classic Walter Mitty type living a life of quiet desperation in a state that specializes in making people desperate: Florida. A divorced FedEx floor manager and absentee father, Wallace essentially hits control-alt-delete on his existence, acquiring an officially documented new identity, orchestrating the phony disappearance of one Wallace Avery, then speeding off in a convertible, ready to reboot as Arthur Newman. (New man, get it?)
His journey hits the first of several bumps when he takes a cough-medicine overdose victim (Emily Blunt) to the hospital and, once she’s released, invites her along on his road trip. This new travel companion goes by the name Mike and, based on her blatant neediness and propensity to rifle through Arthur’s things, immediately announces herself as an equally wounded, spiritually adrift human being. Eventually Mike reveals that she has no qualms about following random people, breaking into their homes, dressing up in their clothes and pretending to be them for a little while. It’s the sort of mostly harmless addiction that tends to afflict characters in quirky short stories and introspective indie films like this. And due to a sexual and emotional component that becomes part of the game, it quickly afflicts Arthur as well.
As implied above, there are several moments in “Arthur Newman” that seem unrealistic at best and tonally out of deep left field at worst. But we continue to stay semi-interested for two principal reasons: Firth and Blunt. Sanding down the curves of their British accents so they can pronounce their vowels with true American flatness, both actors effectively capture the crushing guilt and still-flickering hope that lurks within their characters.
Firth turns his face into a blank, almost forgettable canvas so that when he genuinely smiles in Mike’s presence for the first time, his radiance suggests that Wallace Avery once had something going for him — and maybe could again. Mike might have been an inscrutable, whiny, manic pixie goth girl in another actress’s hands. But as Blunt plays her, she’s empathetic and enigmatic, a wild child one moment and a vulnerable child the next.
Director Dante Ariola, making his feature film debut here, wisely opts to avoid fancy tricks and just lets the camera focus on his leads. But even the understated grace of those two performances isn’t enough to make this movie work.
“Arthur Newman” is a film in search of a tighter edit and a stronger point of view. It meanders from scene to scene, calling to mind the images of leaking faucets and dribbling IV fluid that appear here in close-up. Every tiny moment drip-drip-drips along in a way that makes us think all those inconsequential droplets will eventually add up to something significant.
But in the end, despite the worthwhile questions it raises about how well we ever know ourselves or those we grow to care about, “Arthur Newman” is a lot like its protagonist: admirable in a quiet way but not quite capable of living up to its lofty ambitions.
Chaney is a freelance writer.
R. At area theaters. Contains language and
sexual situations. 101 minutes.