We've all asked ourselves the same questions: Is the grass, in fact, greener on the other side of the fence? What if we could walk for one day in someone else's shoes? If we could erase our pasts, would our lives be that much different?
Wallace Avery (Colin Firth) asks himself these questions too, except he goes one step further and decides to seek out an answer. A mild-mannered manager of a FedEx store near Orlando, Wallace fakes his own death, purchases fake IDs (passport, license, etc.) from some sleazy guy (good to see M. Emmet Walsh) and drives off into a new life as "Arthur Newman."
Arthur has supposedly been offered a job as a golf pro at a country club in Terre Haute, Indiana, following a chance meeting with the club's owner. On the first night in his new identity, Arthur witnesses police arresting a disorderly woman who apparently is trying to run down her lover on the road running alongside his motel.
The next morning, Arthur discovers the same woman all but passed out on a chaise lounge by his motel's pool. She is clearly not well, and Good Samaritan Arthur delivers her to a hospital for treatment. Upon her admission, Arthur locates a piece of identification in her bag and learns that the woman is Michaela Fitzgerald (Emily Blunt), otherwise known as Mike, a transient running from her own demons. Arthur, flawed as he is, is essentially a good soul, and assumes responsibility for Mike. These two mismatched soul mates form an unlikely traveling pair as they journey north through America's heartland en route to a new beginning.
Along the way, Arthur and Mike hole up in roadside motel after roadside motel and eat lots of gas stations' hot dogs. At one point, they spot a couple coming out of a church after having just been married, and decide to follow them home. When the couple leaves their house to go on their honeymoon, Arthur and Mike break in and sort of play-act the couple's honeymoon night. This leads to a strange routine whereupon Arthur and Mike scope out random folks, follow them, break into their homes and play house for a little while.
These clearly illegal activities aren't depicted so much as a crime caper, but more of a 'what if we were them' scenario. Arthur and Mike seem to be trying out various people's lives for a few hours, much as one would take a new car for a test drive.
By way of these would-be life tryouts, the movie is basically asking us to consider if someone else's life is really all that more satisfying than our own. Are we really able to run from our pasts, as much as we'd sometimes like to? Even if we were to assume another identity, does that truly erase the person we are by nature?
These are interesting questions, and it takes a brave movie to pose them, as they are inherently philosophical. Call it existentialist cinema. Who wouldn't want to try on someone else's shoes for a few hours? It's an intriguing notion.
Firth and Blunt are both exceptionally good in roles that require them to internalize much of their acting. Director Dante Ariola and cinematographer Eduard Grau seem to favor capturing their actors close-up, allowing the audience to read the emotions in the actors' eyes, lips and forehead creases. We understand that these characters are both damaged souls and only gradually do we find out why.
The movie isn't blockbuster material, but very much a two-piece character drama, chronicling the journey that Arthur and Mike take not only to Terre Haute, but also to the realization that one may just have to deal with the cards that life has dealt.
Ariola is a smart director and creates a minimalist film, sparse on the special effects, but heavy on atmosphere. Most of the scenes take place in fleabag motels that dot the highways and byways of Middle America. This suits the quiet style of the film and serves to enhance the relationship that develops between Arthur and Mike.
The script by Becky Johnston ("The Prince of Tides," "Seven Years in Tibet") doesn't distract us with colorful side characters that often populate quirky character studies. A little comic relief pokes its head through, but for the most part, the story stays focused on these two very lost people who've entered each other's lives at the exact moment they needed it the most.
The movie, without crossing the line into grandiosity, is, in its own way, life affirming, and ends at just the right time: no codas, no dragged-out afterthoughts. Moving much quicker than its 101 minutes would suggest, "Arthur Newman" is a sweet road movie about buddies for adults who aren't afraid to think.