It’s hard to imagine that someone as dapper as Colin Firth has to go the lengths his character does in “Arthur Newman” to find himself. Most men buy a convertible to ease a midlife crisis, but Newman — aka Wallace Avery — doesn’t stop there. With a duffel bag full of cash and a fresh passport, he fakes his death and splits town under a new identity, meeting a woman (Emily Blunt) who shares his interest in personal reinvention. It’s easy to understand why the role-playing script attracted actors, though attracting auds to this patently phony character study will be far trickier.
A classic case of the grass appearing greener on the other side of the fence, “Arthur Newman” asks auds to jump through a series of plausibility hoops, beginning with the casting of Firth in the title role. A decade ago, a part like this might have gone to Robin Williams, or possibly Paul Giamatti. Here, Firth looks nothing like a sad-sack FedEx floor manager miserable enough to erase his life and start over, despite porting garments that may as well have been recycled from “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
Assuming the Firth-as-Avery setup doesn’t stop auds, there’s still the hurdle of accepting that the discovery of his shoes, wallet and SUV at a deserted beach would be enough to convince police and his loved ones that he had drowned. Then there’s the chance meeting with Blunt’s Mike (or is it Charlotte?), the job offer from a complete stranger that inspires the whole scheme, and the reversal that awaits the couple at the end of the picture — all unbelievable in their own ways.
And yet, incredible as it seems, “Arthur Newman” does hinge on a truth to which the whole world can identify — namely, the fantasy of what it might be like to become someone else. Avery doesn’t get that opportunity for long, since he plays it carelessly, and Mike easily discovers an old ID card among his things, after which she keeps calling him by his real name. To some extent, he’s still attached to his old life; at least, that’s true of director Dante Ariola, who keeps cutting back to Avery’s son (Lucas Hedges) and girlfriend (Anne Heche), who seemed more stunned than sad about his disappearance.
To hear Avery’s acquaintances tell it, he wasn’t just boring, but also not very bright. The man showed promise as a professional golfer, but choked just when his career should have taken off. Though it works against the excitement of the film, writer Becky Johnston pursues the intriguing idea that if given the opportunity to reinvent his life, a boring man will do a boring job of it.
The one thing going in Avery’s favor is that he’s not alone, and Mike — younger, beautiful and wildly unpredictable — spurs him on toward a new plan: Rather than pick an identity, they could pretend to be real people they encounter along the way, breaking into temporarily empty houses and having wild sex in-character on strangers’ beds. Though the plan yields only a short montage in the middle of the film, it temporarily injects the anarchic energy of the lovers-on-the-run genre, although unlike such outlaw films, the police aren’t in pursuit.
The conflict here is all in Avery’s head. So, too, is most of the romance. As lovers go, Firth and Blunt make a strange couple, and Ariola a musicvideo helmer making his feature debut, should have devoted more time to making the chemistry work than to sustaining the melancholy mood. Special mention goes to composer Nick Urata for his haunting, strings-based score, the strongest element in a generally solid tech package.