I walked out of Arthur Newman thinking it was a nice movie. It had pleasant performances, a light directorial touch, and a positive message. But the more I kept thinking about Arthur Newman, the more I realized that “nice” isn’t worthy of an independent film. It isn’t a sweet movie, or an uplifting one. The performances are nowhere near what leads Colin Firth and Emily Blunt are capable of. The direction is inoffensive. And if a bad indie comedy is too reliant on quirk, then a bad indie drama is too reliant on strained premises so the story can provide fortune cookie wisdom. Arthur Newman tiny slip of paper would like us to consider the puddle-deep lesson of not running away from our problems.
Wallace Avery (Firth) is leaving his life behind. He’s purchased the identity of a dead man named “Arthur Newman”, and plans to drive to Terre Haute, Indiana to become a country club’s resident golf pro after he impressing the club’s owner several months prior. On his journey, he comes across Charlotte (Blunt), a drugged-out woman who has stolen her schizophrenic sister Mike’s identity. The two identity thieves decide to travel to Terre Haute together, and on their journey they start breaking into people’s homes, and role-playing as the owners. Meanwhile, in a subplot that goes nowhere, Avery’s girlfriend (Anne Heche) and sullen son reminiscence about Wallace, who they believe is dead.
As you can tell from the synopsis, the message of Arthur Newman is “Be yourself.” It’s fun to dress up as other people in order to avoid your own life, but it’s not healthy to run from your problems. Of course, nobody runs away like this. People may be ashamed of their lives, and they may even abandon their family, but they usually don’t go to the trouble of buying fake passports unless their lives are in mortal danger. So you have an outlandish situation playing itself off as a real relationship all to make a point you can find on any episode of a children’s TV show.
Arthur Newman is the equivalent of a soulless blockbuster, but it’s difficult not to be won over by Firth and Blunt. They can do sadness and longing in their sleep, which is good because sometimes their character are sad and longing while they sleep. Firth’s American accent is a little jarring at first, but like Blunt, he manages to find the warm heart of a thin character. Arthur Newman allows the two actors to technically play multiple parts, but their fake identities are just as thin as their true, sad-sack selves. When they break into the home of an elderly married couple, and start fooling around, they play it like Green Acres. It’s kinky and even a little cute, but it’s obvious.
Blockbusters are designed to entertain the widest audience possible, so they tend to be uncomplicated. The studio system restricts creative freedom, which means working in any subtext is a struggle. An independent film doesn’t have that kind of restriction, but Arthur Newman never takes advantage of its freedom. It’s a small budget for a minor story that wastes major talent. It doesn’t want to bother anybody, which is nice, but so is a fortune cookie. It’s sweet, prepackaged, and in no way filling.
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