For most people, it seems, movies are a form of escapism. For a few hours, they provide a wonderful opportunity to dart out of the real world and into a land where problems are easily resolved, everyone is just a little bit cuter and robots are real. Arthur Newman tells the story of a man who fakes his own death to hit the road and impersonate a world-class golf pro, but it is not escapist entertainment. It is about the nature of escapism itself, and the oft forgotten caveat that wherever you go, there you are. This “Arthur Newman” character might abandon everything that made his life externally frustrating, but he brings every internal struggle with him into his fantasyland. And ironically, this frees him to finally confront his real problems for the very first time.
Colin Firth plays Wallace, a divorcé who is anathema to his son (Sterling Beaumon), detached from his girlfriend (Anne Heche), and who has a plan. He makes sure everyone knows he’s going on a camping trip, he sets up his tent, and then he hightails it out of there in a used car and assumes the identity of “Arthur Newman,” picking up a troubled young woman named Mike, played by Emily Blunt, in less than a day.
Mike has secrets of her own, and like the rest of us (at one time or another) she’s running from something as fast as she can. Arthur Newman follows these people as they travel down the coastline, develop something resembling a bond, and develop a strange fixation on following strangers home, waiting for them to leave, then breaking into their house and having sex dressed as the real people who own the place. Arthur and Mike are so desperate to trade out their lives that they risk everything to escape even their own escapist fantasy, into something more normal, supportive and loving. And sexy. Colin Firth may not be playing up his dapper charms, but they’re in there somewhere, and Emily Blunt’s broken-winged pixie act has a vulnerability and sexual confidence that’s successfully alluring.
As they finally reveal their true natures through the diffusion of role-playing, Arthur and Mike confront their lingering emotional baggage with disarming honesty. The fun of their on-screen chemistry and their increasing kinkiness (that poor, traumatized dog…) also gives them license to also explore their greatest disappointments and fears. Meanwhile, the disappearance of Wallace provides his son and jilted lover the opportunity to decide once and for all whether they actually sympathize with his plight or find him all the more pathetic now that, in his absence, they’ve bothered to uncover what he was all about in the first place.
It’s easy to look at Anne Heche's and Sterling Beaumons' subplot as a less cathartic update of the old Tom Sawyer scenario, where faking your death is pretty darned awesome for a while. You get to see everyone who once viewed you as an inconvenience see you as a real person, worthy of love and sympathy if only in your absence. A person can easily be both, however, and Arthur Newman makes it pretty clear that there are no easy answers for anyone except perhaps to deal with your problems directly (and that's never easy, is it?). What a nice message, but with a plot this thin – no matter how charismatic the performances – it doesn’t leave Arthur Newman feeling like it amounts to much. The film’s final moment is the kind of Screenwriting 101 trickery that seems meaningful without actually meaning anything profound. After this much build up with Arthur and Mike, and all the screen time devoted to the family he left behind, properly resolving where these people stand with each other feels a lot more important than whether our hero will simply commit to one life decision or another, but that’s all the audience is allowed to get anyway. How frustrating.
Without a satisfying finale, Arthur Newman might come across as just an acting exercise. If so, it’s still an impressive one, featuring wonderful performances from the whole cast, but the film’s attempts to illustrate the fallacy of running from one’s problems are more interesting and noble than that, and they deserved a conclusion as rich as the actual journey. At least the journey is entertaining and sexy.
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.