Being yourself isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. That’s the premise in Arthur Newman, an odd rom-com from director Dante Ariola. The titular character, played by Colin Firth, fakes his own death and drives away from his hometown to become Arthur Newman, a golf pro and instructor headed to Terre Haute, Indiana. Shortly after he assumes his new identity, Arthur meets Mike (Emily Blunt), a troubled young woman who is also trying to escape her past.
As viewers, our first impression of Arthur Newman (real name Wallace Avery) isn’t favorable. He is patently unconcerned about leaving his teenage son Grant (Sterling Beaumon) and his ex-wife Mary Alice (Kristin Lehman) to fend without him. He shows only passing concern for his sort-of girlfriend Mina (Anne Heche). In one of the film’s opening scenes, he tells Mina that he’s going to camp at a favorite childhood spot. This is the only courtesy or intimacy that he shows her.
It is on this lovely beach that Avery dies and Newman is born. Police investigating the scene of his so-called disappearance leave it up to Mina to tell Grant and Mary Alice that Wallace has gone missing. It’s an awkward job for the girlfriend, and Heche shines in the role. Her performance is one of the best of the movie. Unfortunately, the fact that Mina is so likable makes Arthur seem even more like a truly careless individual who is incapable of love.
What a man running from his past needs is a woman running from hers, and Arthur Newman doesn’t disappoint in holding up this stereotype. Arthur first sees the enigmatic Mike when she is involved in an altercation with police outside his hotel. Later, he opens his curtains and looks down at the pool only to see the strange young woman sitting in a lounge chair. He jogs down the stairs and tries to talk to Mike but realizes that she’s suffering from an overdose.
What does a woman running from her past need? A man to protect her, of course, and Arthur Newman doesn’t disappoint on that stereotype, either. Arthur takes Mike to the hospital, where he stays by her bedside until she wakes up. She begs him to take her with him to Terre Haute. He neither agrees nor disagrees but slips out while she’s sleeping.
Of course, the movie wouldn’t be a rom-com if Mike didn’t come rushing down the hall of the hospital just as Arthur was about to leave. So begins the pair’s journey together. On the way to Terre Haute, Mike discovers that Arthur Newman isn’t, in fact, Arthur Newman. Not long thereafter, Arthur also discovers that Mike hasn’t been entirely honest about her identity. It’s a fact that immediately bonds the pair, making them inseparable from that point forward.
As they make their way to Terre Haute much too slowly, Arthur and Mike adopt the identities of others. They see an older couple getting married at a courthouse, then follow them home and break in once the couple has left for their honeymoon. Here a romance between Arthur and Mike begins, but the viewer knows that it is artificial precisely because they always adopt the identities of others while making love. While the identities that they choose, like a Russian man and his kept woman, are comical at times, they’re also flat.
Therein lies the film’s central problem. Arthur Newman is a rom-com in which we can never buy into the romance because we know that the lovers aren’t being real with each other (quite literally). Ariola spends a great deal of time introducing us to Arthur and Mike but doesn’t spend enough time introducing us to the rich human beings beneath the assumed identities. The film can’t get away with this and leave the viewer satisfied because Mike and Arthur are already in on each others’ secret; it’s implausible to think they’d devote so little time to revealing their true selves.
While the resolution of the Mike-Arthur angle of the film is downright dull, it’s worth hanging in until the end to see the tender relationship that develops between Grant and Mina. This unlikely pair navigate Wallace’s absence with sophistication and tenderness, making us wish that this was the film’s central storyline, not the absurd relationship between Arthur and Mike. While Emily Blunt and Colin Firth are fun to watch, this is a film best left on the shelf.
The DVD release of Arthur Newman includes a “Behind the Scenes” featurette and the film’s original theatrical trailer. The featurette includes interviews with Blunt and Firth that illuminate what they saw in the script, but they still can’t make us like the film. The special features, like the movie, are just a bit flat.