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'Arthur Newman': In the leads, personality to spare; in the plot, a void ★★

A wee movie of comparable interest, "Arthur Newman" is a road-tripping seriocomedy featuring Colin Firth as a depressive identity thief and former pro golfer, opposite Emily Blunt in the role of a suicidal kleptomaniac. Together they find love, while embarking on escapades involving breaking into people's homes and trying on different clothes and personalities.

They're incomplete, and in need of a resting place and some honest human understanding. The movie, alas, is similarly incomplete.

How would "Arthur Newman" work with unknowns? Firth and Blunt, in the words of that great, great film critic Donald Rumsfeld, are known knowns — enormously likable performers with actorly wiles and easy charisma to spare. But the script of "Arthur Newman," written two decades ago by Becky Johnston, cries out for deadpan anonymity, not the charismatic likes of these two.

Hinging his performance on a hard-r Middle American dialect, Firth's sad-sack character, Wallace Avery, has left his marriage, estranged himself from his son, initiated a fade-out with his girlfriend (Anne Heche) and walked away from his FedEx floor manager job. Faking his own death, he acquires a new identity: that of Arthur Newman, golf pro for hire, heading from Florida to Terre Haute, Ind., where a job and a new life await.

En route he meets Michaela aka Mike, played by Blunt, who has a twin sister in a psychiatric ward and a penchant for trouble. Adorable one minute, a pathos machine the next, she tags along with Wallace/Arthur and eventually their role-playing mania falls away, revealing their aching hearts underneath. Meantime Wallace/Arthur's teenage son (Sterling Beaumon) strikes up an unlikely friendship with the Heche character, as they both struggle to understand the cipher who has skipped out of their lives.

Feature film debut director Dante Ariola puts a gloss on a scenario that is, at heart, an ode to drab beige motel room and apartment interiors. Much as I enjoy the actors I didn't buy a word or frame of "Arthur Newman." Firth and Blunt took it on, presumably, because the movie amounts to a two-person, multicharacter play on screen: an acting exercise. They're good, as always. But here they're on their own.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Arthur Newman' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating:
R (for sexual content including a strong graphic image, and for language)
Running time: 1:41
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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