Nebbishy Wallace has suddenly glimpsed the opportunity to drop out of his life and start over, and Arthur Newman sounds like a suitably bland pseudonym.
Who knows where the name comes from? A subconscious desire to be that new man? A vague recall of countless Mad magazine covers? Whatever, it drives Wallace (played by Colin Firth) to becomes something -- anything -- other than what he is now.
And so we launch into "Arthur Newman," a wish-fulfillment movie on the tantalizing topic of wiping the slate clean and starting over. For Wallace, this means faking a suicide and hitting the road in Arthur's new convertible, leaving behind an estranged son (Lucas Hedges) and a girlfriend (Anne Heche, who, as usual, does a lot with very little).
It comes as a huge disappointment that the film almost immediately introduces Arthur to a tiresome example of the manic pixie form, Mike (Emily Blunt), who shows up in a lounge chair by the pool at Arthur's motel at midnight, tanked on cough syrup and self-loathing.
His journey is thus derailed by a kook romance, as the two engage in a little harmless breaking and entering while role-playing their way through different characters.
You can feel the wind leave the movie's sails when Mike shows up, as Arthur's open road narrows to one neurotic (and, to be sure, erotic) focus. Nothing against the resourceful Emily Blunt, who tries hard to get something authentic into screenwriter Becky Johnston's conception of the role, but she has an impossible task.
Colin Firth revels in the tonelessness of his American accent, which reflects the emptiness of Wallace. The whole exercise supplies a tidy metaphor for acting, as Wallace tests out voices for Arthur, looking for the key to this new character he's tackling.
Director Dante Ariola has a track record in TV commercials, a history betrayed by his willingness to opt for the cutesy joke at every opportunity.
The movie's plot conjures up a faraway echo of the 1969 Francis Coppola oddity "The Rain People," and the comparison isn't kind to this movie: Where Coppola went for arthouse eeriness, Ariola settles for self-satisfied vignettes.
This undercuts whatever chance Firth and Blunt have at exploring the worthy subject of personal emptiness, and leads to a sentimental conclusion that resolves too much at the same time it supposedly "leaves the door open."
The latter presumes a curiosity about what happens next, which seems unlikely in this case.
"Arthur Newman" (2 stars)
Colin Firth plays a nebbish who decides to drop his old life and start over; unfortunately for him (and the movie), he meets a manic pixie (Emily Blunt) who derails his road trip. Nothing against those two actors, but the film devolves into a series of self-satisfied vignettes.
Rated: Not rated; probably R for language, subject matter.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Meridian, Oak Tree, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.
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