What if we are all Arthur Newman? This is the question that director Dante Ariola and screenwriter Becky Johnston raise in “Arthur Newman,” their tepid, imaginatively uninvolved drama about two strangers that fall in love while trying to escape their banal past lives. Ariola and Johnston’s film follows a rag-tag couple, played by Colin Firth and Emily Blunt, who bond when they discover that they both want to run away from their respective families and create new lives for themselves. But because “Arthur Newman” is a drab, psychologically flat portrait of misfit lovers in the process of self-fashioning new identities, we never really learn who its two main characters aspire to be or in what new direction they want to take their lives. All we know is that Arthur and his new girlfriend like to play hooky from their day-to-day existence, and that experience inexplicably changes everything.
Firth stars as Newman, a milquetoast family man that quietly flees from his wife (Anne Heche) and son and goes on a road trip to start a new life as a resident golf pro in Florida. Along the way, he meets Mike (Blunt), a troubled loner that is hesitantly attracted to Newman’s “phoney”-ness. She also wants to run away from her life and start afresh, but has nothing but quiet contempt for anything that signifies normal (ie. domestic) society in the film. Mike and Arthur follow other couples and break into their houses so that they can pretend that they are other people. So they develop a tenuous romantic relationship while having sex while dressed in strangers’ clothes.
This wouldn’t be such a preposterously quirky scenario if Ariola and Johnston were more capable of navigating their film’s more pronounced tonal shifts. The transient life that Mike and Arthur lead is defined by road-side conversations, encounters in and out of bus stations, and deferred glances in hotel rooms. So when Mike encourages Arthur to take her from behind in an old couple’s home or bed her in the home of another elderly couple, it understandably only tells you so much about the characters. This is a brave new world for Mike and Arthur, and they’re figuring it out carnally and sensationally, as is shown in the scene when Arthur blanches when a motel proprietor is unabashedly watching porn behind the concierge’s desk.
Likewise, it makes sense that Arthur’s big goal of starting afresh in Florida as a resident golf pro is in fact not an especially big dream. It makes sense that a man with a modest imagination would have modest dreams. But that doesn’t make watching two strangers transform from fast friends to lovers, and then into changed individuals, simply because they are apparently attracted to each other’s inability to cope with reality, any more compelling.
But beyond the risibly tinny dialogue that defines the film’s first half hour, there simply isn’t enough of a believable connection between Mike and Arthur for the film’s ostensibly life-changing events to feel even remotely transformative. When the characters do talk directly and earnestly with each other, it’s only to reveal what it is about their pasts that they’re trying to get away from, never what it is that they have retained from their former lives. So we never get to understand what it is Mike and Arthur want from each other, simply because it’s assumed that living in denial and role-playing is as far as they’ve imagined going together.
As such, the plot of “Arthur Newman” pushes forward thanks entirely to Ariola and Johnston’s need to see events through. There’s no real resolution to Arthur and Mike’s respective problems because they’re never really explored. Instead, you get a lot of scenes of him pining for her attention and her refusing to give him the time of day until they’ve perfunctorily established that they’re both lonely, very anxious people that just don’t want to go back to their respective homes. They have sex, find comfort in each others’ company and get off on playing dress up.
And between moments of generic and utterly hackneyed dialogue, they somehow grow as people. This is not the stuff of stirring humanist drama, but rather a bland scenario about boring people that want to mature but have no idea how. It’s intentionally underdone, but only to a point. [D]