Mistaken and reinvention of identity is a longstanding theme within popular culture, from North by Northwest to Mad Men?the dream to change or pretend to be someone else, even if only for a little while. In Arthur Newman, Colin Firth plays Wallace Avery, from Orlando, Florida, whose life is so unsatisfying he decides to purchase a new one, paying three thousand dollars to a local gangster for a fake ID.
Wallace appears to have a pretty fine life, if a little boring; it’s nothing he couldn’t fix on his own. The film suggests that in order for Wallace to realize how valuable and repairable his old life is, he must first try his hand at being another man. He fumbles with his new identity, though, and not in a way that’s very compelling. I found myself wondering why he thought this plan was worth it in the first place.
He is unsatisfied with both his managerial job at FedEx and his unenthusiastic girlfriend, Mina (Anne Heche). He’s also divorced and has a very strained relationship with his teenage son, Kevin (Lucas Hedges), who Wallace has neglected and is suddenly longing to get to know better. Wallace tells Mina he’s planning a solo camping trip on the beach for a weekend, and he abandons all his equipment, as well as his wallet on the beach, and begins a new life. The invention of his alter ego began months before, and Wallace describes the circumstances during the course of the film: Wallace, a fairly talented golfer, was asked to teach at a private golf club in Terra Haute, Indiana, after he helped a wealthy man greatly improve his game. On a whim, Wallace tells the man his name is Arthur J. Newman and decides to take him up on his offer.
That’s where Wallace/Arthur is heading when he crosses paths with Mike (Emily Blunt), as in Michaela, who has just been arrested for stealing a car. She is released from jail but still in a bad way, having overdosed on cough syrup. Wallace has decided that Arthur helps those in need, and so he takes Mike to the hospital after finding her passed out by the pool at his hotel. Upon her release, he offers her a ride anywhere, but Mike is also hiding a secret identity and quickly discovers Arthur’s. Figuring that they have much in common and wanting an escape from her own problems, she rides with him to Terra Haute.
The film chronicles their journey as well as the effect Wallace’s disappearance has on Mina and Kevin. Mike and Arthur slowly learn a little about each other, but rather enjoy playing the characters they’ve created for themselves. Mike even convinces Arthur to break into people’s houses and pretend to be different couples, wearing their clothes, eating their food, and sleeping in their beds.
These imagined relationships allow Mike and Arthur to explore their romantic feelings for each other, though Mike is clear that her feelings for Arthur are part of the game. Mike, however, is a problematic character; whereas Wallace comes off boring, even as Arthur, Mike is the quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but it’s unclear to what end. She’s dealing with the fact that both her sister and mother suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, but it’s hard to tell whether she’s suffering too or just acting, the same way she pretends to live other people’s lives. It makes for an initially compelling but ultimately perplexing romantic relationship.
The best performance comes from Lucas Hedges who, as Wallace’s son, becomes more intrigued, yet angry, as he comes to terms with his father’s disappearance. Recently seen in the ensemble cast of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Hedges grounds the film as Kevin searches for answers about his absent father. The teen spends more time at Wallace’s apartment, and runs into Mina, the girlfriend. Though not explored in great depth, their unlikely friendship is the most noteworthy relationship in the film. In one scene, they both admit Wallace was quite a dull man. Mina remarks, however, that she still loves him; Kevin is more wary. As a viewer, I agree that both Wallace and Arthur are quite lackluster, but, like Kevin, I’m not convinced they’re lovable.