O, Be Some Other Name, by Rita Cannon
Arthur Newman should be so much more interesting than it is. It stars Emily Blunt and Colin Firth, two of the most charismatic actors working today. It explores themes that should be relatable to just about everyone: regret, failed dreams, the desire to start over and reinvent yourself, and the fear that such a thing may not be possible. Unfortunately, the way it explores them – the actual beats of the story, and the way that story resolves itself – doesn’t really do justice to the ideas it evokes in its first act.
Firth plays Wallace Avery, an unhappy divorcee who hates his boring office job, and is on poor terms with ex-wife and son. He has a girlfriend, Mina (played by an uncharacteristically dowdy Anne Heche), but he doesn’t seem to like her much. As the film opens, Wallace is launching a plan to fake his own death and start a new life under the name Arthur Newman (see what he did there?). He announces to Mina and his family that’s he going camping for the weekend. He sets up a tent on the beach, then abandons it, setting off for Florida in a new sports car purchased with cash. At his first pit stop, he meets Mike (Blunt), a troubled young woman on the run from her own demons (he discovers her by the hotel pool, whacked out on prescription dugs in what might have been a failed suicide attempt), and who blackmails Arthur into letting her tag along after she finds his old driver’s license and realizes he’s hiding something.
This is already pretty twisted for a movie meet-cute, but it only gets weirder from there. On the way down to Florida, the two fall in love, but the activity they bond over is a bit strange: Breaking into houses and briefly adopting the identities of the couples who live there, right down to wearing their clothes and having sex in their bed. This is a creepy thing to do, but judging by the swooning score that kicks in during the first of these expeditions, director Dante Ariola doesn’t seem to know that.
Mike and Arthur’s saga gets darker as it goes along, and they both soon realize that starting over isn’t as simple as they’d hoped. As the lies they’ve told each other are slowly but steadily revealed, their problems grow more and more complicated, but the film’s treatment of them stays superficial and light. Firth and Blunt both give good performances, adding more realistic shades to their characters when they can, but the script doesn’t give them much to dig into. Their bizarre actions have surprisingly minimal consequences, which keeps the film’s stakes dangerously low. Even when they decide (or, to be more accurate, are forced to) stop running from their problems and face them head-on, exactly what “facing their problems” looks like is kept rather vague. This story of two damaged people who come together through crime and fraud begs for a thornier, more challenging portrayal than it gets from Ariola, who seems determined to force it into the shape of a quirky romantic comedy. There are interesting elements to Arthur Newman, but ultimately, its promising premise wilts into something pretty listless and boring.
This is a weak moment in American film history. Films of the 1970s were unafraid to investigate who we are within the society we’re enclosed by. Where is The Deer Hunter of today’s cinema? The shock of trauma, of heartbreak mean nothing in the absence of quiet and reflection. In today’s cultural landscape we could use a heaping portion of the stillness to breathe, and we need insightful portraits of outsiders and the disenfranchised; not the clichéd homeless or the drug-addled but the Wallace Avery’s who make up the bulk of our working society. This species of screen story is not encouraged or promoted as it is, ironically, in contemporary cable television. American movies dole out plenty of mindless escapism despite the overwhelming majority of smart baby boomers and inquisitive youth of all classes who are looking for nutritious content. Dull un-layered stories posing as quirky, or the effects-laden blockbuster with its ADD editorial style continue to critically trump the psychological character-driven pieces that once gave American film its most intelligent and soulful content.