Road pictures come, off the shelf, with an automatic story arc: the characters must get from point A to point B, not just geographically but thematically. More often than not, they end up at a different point B than they had intended or hoped for. The genre is available in three major flavors: person or persons on the run from pursuers (cops, gangsters, or both); unlikely heroes desperately trying to deliver something (like the rare vaccine for a pandemic); romantic comedy odd couple thrown together by chance, then learning how to get along. Some films manage to do all three at once. The most perfect examples are "The 39 Steps" and "North by Northwest"; "Midnight Run" is close, if you consider "bromance" a subset of "romance."
"Arthur Newman" is, in its trappings, a rom-com — without the jokes, unfortunately. Colin Firth plays the title character. Or, more precisely, he plays the character who plays the title character. He is Wallace Avery, a middle-class guy who feels stuck in a swamp of his own making. His life is far from horrible: He's divorced, but he has a lover (Anne Heche) who seems a better fit for him. He has a career as a FedEx branch manager. And his relationship with his teenage son is almost nonexistent. And guess whose fault that is.
He decides he needs a new start, so he conjures the fictitious identity Arthur J. Newman, scores a set of counterfeit IDs, stages a fake suicide, and abandons everything to follow his dream. The Oz he aspires to is Terre Haute, Indiana. And it's not just because he's looking forward to some of that Terre Haute cuisine. A year earlier, the owner of a T.H. country club offered him a job as a summer golf pro. It's not a total fantasy — he really was a golf pro. But he abandoned this aspiration for wife, child and delivery service. We later learn more about the underlying psychological flaw at the heart of his failures.
There's very little sense of the physical direction of his journey. It's suggested that his Point A is Florida, though, from the look of things, it could be Decatur or Cincinnati. In terms of setting, he may as well be going from Terre Haute to Terre Haute.
He may be a dulled-down Colin Firth, but he's still Colin Firth, so we shouldn't be surprised that before he's driven out of hearing range of home, he manages to pick up a woman half his age (Emily Blunt). Michaela is sassy and pretty, but there are drawbacks: she's also a drunk, a kleptomaniac, and half the other types described in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders."
The problem here is that Arthur is just as dull and unlikable as Wallace. In either persona, he makes Steve Carell's similar character in "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" seem like a dynamic world adventurer. This may be a tribute to Firth's ability — he really inhabits the part of a jerk.
A change of identity requires a tad more than a set of credit cards and a new name. Yes, the filmmakers know this: Indeed, it's one of the movie's main points. But they seem to feel the hero goes through a major change by the end. The transformation struck me as no deeper than a wading pool. And while it happens, or doesn't, we are stuck with Arthur/Wallace for an hour and a half. All of Michaela's dramatic fits and noise-making are not sufficient to compensate.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times