Arthur Newman: Toronto Review

Colin Firth and Emily Blunt play dress-up in sweet, semi-romantic road trip.

Dante Ariola's first feature, starring Colin Firth and Emily Blunt, comes after a successful career making TV ads.

TORONTO — A man living in quiet desperation and a woman whose suffering is a good deal less inconspicuous try to jettison unwanted identities in Arthur Newman, a road film that (thankfully) has less to do with golf than its synopsis might suggest. Landing leads Colin Firth and Emily Blunt helps the commercial prospects of director Dante Ariola's feature debut, and Firth makes a convincing dive into the title character's psyche; some plot elements may give critics pause, but for a not-quite romance its commercial prospects are solid.

Firth's title character is created before our eyes: Fuddy-duddy Fed Ex employee Wallace Avery, judging his life a failure, stages his death and drives off in a just-bought convertible practicing convincing ways of saying "Hey. I'm Arthur Newman." Having been a promising golfer before choking on his first PGA tour, he intends to start a new life as a golf pro in Terre Haute. Not as romantic as a new identity on a Caribbean beach, perhaps, but it's probably as appealing a fantasy as a Wallace Avery can project.

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At the first motel on his route north, Arthur rescues a woman (Blunt) who has OD'ed on cough syrup after a botched attempt to steal somebody's car. Charlotte Fitzgerald is a mess, and is using her twin Michaela's ID for reasons less concrete than Arthur's: Living her own life simply seems too fraught for her. Needing someone capable of handling daily life, Charlotte decides to accompany Arthur.

Teasingly, Charlotte introduces Arthur to a new game: As they travel, they target happy couples and break into their homes when nobody's around. They play dress up, adopt the residents' identities, and make out. The conceit is an ingenious way around the difference in the characters' ages and backgrounds: Instead of trying to convince us this beautiful young woman would be attracted to a deeply square older man, screenwriter Becky Johnston invents a scenario in which sleeping with him is a kind of rejection of both their unwanted identities.

Ariola brings out the sweetness of the game, though, especially in the first outing: having targeted two senior citizens who have just gotten married, Charlotte affects gently formal Southernisms while asking her imaginary, elderly groom to lie down beside her. Blunt plays the scene beautifully, leaving ample room for ambiguity; at the same time, it's clear that Arthur will be playing this game for real, no matter whose wardrobe he's raiding.

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In addition to the growing possibility that Arthur will get his heart broken, there's the issue of the cash -- the bag full of money he's funding this self-reinvention with, and which Charlotte spots early on in their time together. Having introduced her as a thief, the film isn't too heavy-handed with hints that she might run off with the bag, though the danger never fades.

The movie doesn't even care where all that dough came from, and is better off that way. If Arthur had stolen it from work, say, we'd have to deal with police on the couple's trail and the constant worry that getting caught having sex in a stranger's bed might lead to more than a red face and a trespassing charge. For the hero of Arthur Newman, who's already carrying the weight of a failed career, marriage, and fatherhood, the stakes are high enough already.

Production Company: Vertebra Films
Cast: Colin Firth, Emily Blunt, Anne Heche, M. Emmet Walsh, David Andrews, Kristin Lehman
Director: Dante Ariola
Screenwriter: Becky Johnston
Producers: Alisa Tager, Becky Johnston, Mac Cappuccino, Brian Oliver
Executive producers: Helen Cappuccino, Andrew Cappuccino, Lisa Bruce, Natalie G. Hill, James Holt, Eric Greenfeld
Director of photography: Eduard Grau
Production designer: Christopher Glass
Music: Nick Urata
Costume designer: Nancy Steiner
Editor: Olivier Bugge Coutte
Sales: UTA, CAA
No rating, 100 minutes