Director Dante Ariola and writer Becky Johnston have such a strong idea at the core of Arthur Newman that it’s all the more frustrating when they follow it down the most familiar path. Colin Firth stars as a somnambulant Floridian and FedEx middle manager who fakes his own death, buys himself a new identity, and hits the road to become a golf pro in Terre Haute, Indiana. Before he can get too far out of town, Firth meets the erratic Emily Blunt, who sniffs him out as a phony right away, because she’s traveling under an assumed name herself. When she asks Firth if she can be the sidekick for his reinvention, he agrees, and soon he’s following her thrill-seeking lead, breaking into abandoned houses so that they can pretend to be the residents—partly for the sexual kink, partly just to disappear into yet another persona for a while. Meanwhile, back in Florida, Firth’s girlfriend, Anne Heche, and his estranged son are dealing with the aftermath of Firth’s “death,” and wrestling with who he really was.
A lot of people fantasize about erasing their lives and starting over elsewhere, and so long as Arthur Newman just goes with that flow—and enjoys the way Firth and Blunt take pleasure in newness—the movie is reasonably entertaining, even moving. But Ariola and Johnston feel obliged to put them through the ringer—more to give Arthur Newman some clear, easily understood conflict than to illuminate the movie’s theme. While the actors are all very good, their characters are ultimately nothing more than a collection of contrived hang-ups and quirks, explained via artificially parceled-out backstory. Early on, the film hints that there’s more to Firth and Blunt’s journey into anonymity than just garden-variety escapism, but Ariola and Johnston make the audience wait for the answers to questions that aren’t that compelling in the first place. Eventually, Firth and Blunt cease to feel like real people and instead become constructs, beholden to their creators’ prosaic explanations for why they do what they do. In other words, Arthur Newman is a standard-issue, earnest American indie, where the people do what’s needed to serve the plot and the point, even if that means behaving more like short-sighted idiots than the shrewder characters they’re meant to be.