Wallace Avery, a divorced, midlevel functionary at FedEx, hates his life and wants to be somebody else.
The movie about him, “Arthur Newman,” opening Friday, wants to be something else, too. The problem is, what “Arthur Newman” wants to be is not particularly clear. Romance? Road flick? Or perhaps existential drama?
Colin Firth has the title role, playing a disaffected Floridian who fakes his death so he can run away to Indiana and be a golf pro. Though Firth effectively shakes off his British romantic/comedic lead persona with the help of a flat, American accent, he has more difficulty sliding into the khaki-wearing middle-age crisis that is intended to propel the movie.
This is not Firth’s fault, or that of anyone in the talented cast, which includes fellow Brit Emily Blunt as a petty-larcenous prescription drug abuser; Anne Heche as the lovely blond girlfriend Wallace leaves behind; and Lucas Hedges as Wallace’s abandoned adolescent son.
It’s that, like several people in the movie, we just aren’t buying Arthur Newman’s story. Perhaps the setup moves too quickly and quietly. We see Wallace in a few mildly demeaning situations – berated by an unemployment clerk, peeking into the home of his ex-wife and son – before he gets his phony ID, buys a used Mercedes-Benz convertible and drives off into his new life. The choice seems extreme for the circumstances.
But the newly dubbed “Arthur” is not even a day into his adventure when he intervenes in the life-crisis of Michaela, aka Mike (Blunt), who tries a half-hearted cough syrup overdose by his motel’s pool after being picked up with a stolen car.
Arthur doesn’t call an ambulance; he carries the young woman to his car, drives her to the hospital, gets her admitted and waits by her bedside until she is out of danger.
It doesn’t fit. Why would a man who wants people to think he is dead bring such attention to himself? He comes across like a guy in one of those hotel ads – “No, I’m not a doctor, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night!”
Mike recovers and for contrived reasons continues with Arthur on the journey to Terre Haute. There’s a rather cute moment when they realize they both are pretending to be someone they are not, but for the most part, the audience is left to its own devices to figure out what is really up with these two.
Not much, as it turns out.
The actors have the most fun when the film takes a comic turn, with the pair cruising off the highway to pick out people whose lives they would like to “try on.” They do this in their homes, their clothes and their beds, but in the end, its always back to the anonymous motel rooms that provide temporary shelter for America’s weary travelers.
Back home, Arthur’s small, fractured family occasionally is seen adjusting to his disappearance with various degrees of confusion, anger and guilt. To director Dante Ariola’s credit, he manages to say a lot in these small scenes.
It isn’t revealing too much to sum up the movie by quoting Wallace/Arthur, when he realizes that he and Mike both “know what it’s like to lose what you thought you didn’t want.”
Now, if only “Arthur Newman” knew how to find what it doesn’t have, the good pieces of this movie could really come together. Oh well, maybe in another life.
Two and a half stars
Starring: Colin Firth, Emily Blunt, Anne Heche, Lucas Hedges
Director: Dante Ariola
Running time: 101 minutes
Rating: R for sexual content, profanity and brief drug use.
The Lowdown: A man assumes a new identity and meets a woman who also is trying to leave her past behind.