Who among us has never felt the urge to shake off our identity and start over, with a new name, a new life far away from our stockpile of disenchantments?
In this atypical road movie, we first meet Wallace Avery (Colin Firth) in his local unemployment office staring into space with the hangdog look of the utterly lost. A dead end job at Fed Ex, a low affect, uninspiring girlfriend (Ann Heche) and a son who hates him are all he has to look forward to. Before the disappointments of life overrule what's left of his expectations, Wallace fakes his own death and hits the road with a phony ID in what has to be the most creative act he's ever accomplished; he becomes Arthur Newman, golf pro and aspiring manifestor of a long lost dream.
The journey begins when Wallace as ennui meets anomie in Charlotte (Emily Blunt). A wreck of a punk gamine posing as her schizophrenic twin sister Mikhaila (Mike), she too is running away and the oblivion she seeks in overdosing on cough syrup (and in her sister's identity) only serves to exacerbate the out-of-control feelings she's running from. Arthur and Mike are as unlikely a duo as one can encounter, yet they will unlock one another in a delicate unraveling not often rendered in contemporary film.
Once on the road together, Mike seduces Arthur into playing a game; they break into happy couple's houses and act out their identities, dressing in their clothes, goofing off and ultimately making love in character as each couple. Launching from the idea of how we often look to other people's lives for clues of how to live our own, the first of these romps leads to one of the most moving love scenes (posing as a sex scene) I've ever watched, where I actually felt like a voyeur in a multi-faceted masquerade. Like Russian nesting dolls, this film reveals more than it could ever hope to hide.
Although director Dante Ariola doesn't fail to entertain and there are plenty of humorous moments, there's something very humble at work here as we watch Colin Firth and Emily Blunt inhabit this story, an intimacy the extent of which is rarely seen in contemporary film. Perhaps it lies in the fact that the story, written by Becky Johnston can be read as a metaphor for the lives of actors, who are constantly engaged in the process of becoming someone else. I believe that for Firth and Blunt, this attests in part for the nakedness of their performances. Throughout this masquerade both of the character's faces are in the process of becoming... becoming closer to a great and pure truth of existence and this is what holds us, this is what is so beautiful to watch.
The film's sublime edge also lies within the talents of a new director brave enough to swim against the stream of the excessive, overblown gestures that are now becoming conventional, especially those expected of commercial directors on their maiden features. Dante Ariola comes to features from award-winning successes as a commercial director. It takes a finely honed set of skills to be able to tell a great story in 30 seconds. Yet when faced with the challenge of 90 minutes or more many commercial directors fail to achieve the breadth, pace and subtlety Ariola successfully arrives at on his first outing.
This is a weak moment in American film history. Films of the 1970s were unafraid to investigate who we are within the society we're enclosed by. Where is The Deer Hunter of today's cinema? The shock of trauma, of heartbreak mean nothing in the absence of quiet and reflection. In today's cultural landscape we could use a heaping portion of the stillness to breathe, and we need insightful portraits of outsiders and the disenfranchised; not the clichéd homeless or the drug-addled but the Wallace Avery's who make up the bulk of our working society. This species of screen story is not encouraged or promoted as it is, ironically, in contemporary cable television. American movies dole out plenty of mindless escapism despite the overwhelming majority of smart baby boomers and inquisitive youth of all classes who are looking for nutritious content. Dull un-layered stories posing as quirky, or the effects-laden blockbuster with its ADD editorial style continue to critically trump the psychological character-driven pieces that once gave American film its most intelligent and soulful content.
We don't always need our tropes tied up in bows of precise conclusions. Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is a case in point of where American filmmaking should be headed. Stasis tends to frighten big money, which believes it has to beat the future at its own game with the pace of an AK-47. Sometimes we desperately need to sit still and think where we are within all this spin. Arthur Newman gives us the type of reflective filmmaking that, to quote Paul Schrader, "transforms empathy into aesthetic appreciation, experience into expression, emotions into form."
Smart, adult and honest with an exquisite music score, Arthur Newman is not a sappy movie, or a story of wisdom swathed in gauze. If you're looking for quiet yet no less thrilling performances of little lives on the margins and an entertaining experience of sublime reflection, look out for Arthur Newman.