Arthur Newman is a textbook case of a film that, on the surface, is completely harmless. A decent story, acted ably, and directed with an understated reserve. But there’s something off about the film. It’s like one of those sonic exercises that injects a low, almost inaudible tone into a room that leaves you feeling unsettled and uncomfortable. The trick now is figuring out just what is the cause of the disturbance is.
Was it the poorly conceived American accent of Colin Firth in the “titular” role? Sure didn’t help matters much. He sounded more convincing eking out glottal stops in The King’s Speech. You can almost see him straining under the pressure of trying to stuff back his fine English diction, which only adds more discomfort to his performance as a FedEx floor manager from Florida who, fed up with his own minor existence, seizes on an opportunity to change his life and his identity — he fakes his death and turns himself into the title character of this film.
Or maybe it was the weird tonal shifts that kept rippling through this film? It flows from a character drama that explores Newman’s motivations to a strange Something Wild-referencing farce when Firth’s character stumbles upon a messed up soul (Emily Blunt) who is also trying to erase her former troubled life — at first via a cough syrup overdose, and then by grabbing Newman, breaking into other couples’ houses, pretending to be them, and fucking like crazy. Toss in morose stretches in which Newman’s estranged teen son tries to learn about his father’s life following his disappearance, and it becomes downright nausea-inducing trying to keep up with the threads and moods within.
Or do the failings of this film sit right in the lap of Dante Ariola? Making his first feature film, the director takes a completely hands-off approach to the conception and execution of this story. Cameras are placed right where you’d expect them to be, montages swing by at a comfortable clip with peppy pop tunes leading the way, and absolutely no risks are taken. A strange move for a film about a man taking probably the biggest risk he has ever attempted in his sad little life.
As you’ve likely guessed from the preceding words, there’s no one simple explanation to sum up what went wrong with Arthur Newman. It was a confluence of bad decisions that, while they don’t add up to a complete train wreck, result in a gnat of a film that will be quickly brushed away into second run theaters and to Netflix Instant within the week.