There’s no doubt that Wallace Avery (Colin Firth) is going through a rough patch. He’s collecting unemployment insurance, regularly spying on his estranged family, and appearing completely unsatisfied with his new girlfriend. But none of that seems to properly set up the extreme solution he devises for starting over: After trading in his SUV for a Benz convertible and buying a new passport, Wallace fakes his own death and re-emerges with the career and hopes of one Arthur Newman. Enter Mike (Emily Blunt), real name Charlotte, who joins Arthur on his trip to Indiana, together breaking into the homes of a recently married elderly couple and a hip photographer and model, among others, in order to briefly experience how strangers live (chiefly by putting on their clothes and having sex in their beds). Throughout Dante Ariola’s film, the expressions of the false-identity theme are multitudinous, and about as subtle as Wallace’s choice for a new last name.
And still, Firth and Blunt manage to bring poignancy to their characters’ meandering escapades. There are plenty of moments of awkward discomfort, such as Arthur giving his full name in every introduction (“Arthur J. Newman”), or using his new catch phrase with a self-satisfied grin (“How’s life treating you?”), but Firth always stops short of mocking a character whose social skills quite clearly don’t match the ones he possesses in his imagination. But it’s Blunt’s magnetic performance that gives weight to an otherwise frivolous film, particularly as we discover Mike’s own motivations for ditching her name and identity. She fears the psychological problems seemingly fated for her by her family history, meaning she not only desires a much more radical new beginning than Arthur, but also has more substantial reasons to pursue a new self, even if that amounts to a hopeless struggle against an uncontrollable future.
In its too-routine ending, Arthur Newman unfairly equates Arthur and Mike’s predicaments, which amounts to an under-appreciation of Mike as a character. But what saves the film is how, as the pair travels to Indiana, the emerging truths about Mike, combined with a side story about the son and girlfriend Arthur has left behind, lead to a contrast between the romanticism of Arthur’s new life and the cowardice of his decision to pursue it. By the end, in spite of how easily the film lets him off the hook, Arthur emerges as a self-involved man who mistakenly and selfishly believes he deserves a better life than the one he got. So while in the annals of American reinvention Arthur Newman is certainly no Jay Gatsby, the film does succeed as a small story about an entirely unnecessary big decision—a warning against using such a drastic flight from reality to treat a common midlife crisis.