Melancholy and middle America aren't usually seen in the rom-com world. In "Arthur Newman," a romantic comedy that unfolds during a road trip to Terra Haute, Ind., they are refreshingly unexpected elements that soften us up for the rough patches the film hits along the way.
Also working in the film's favor are Colin Firth and Emily Blunt, both well-versed in comedy and about as appealing on screen as actors come. They star as a couple of depressed souls whose paths cross one night at the edge of a seedy motel swimming pool. It's late enough and chilly enough that even as drunk as she is — and she is very — she is shivering when he spots her. And surly.
Michaela, or Mike for short, is not looking for new friends, much less romance.
The pool is a good metaphor to set up the film. Both of its main characters are doing a lousy job of staying afloat in life. It's anything but a "meet cute" — and one more way "Arthur Newman" breaks the rom-com cookie cutter that has plagued us in recent years. So much promise.
"Arthur Newman" was initially written by Becky Johnston in the early 1990s with Nick Nolte in mind to star. They'd worked together on "The Prince of Tides," with Johnston and novelist Pat Conroy sharing an Oscar nomination in 1992 for adapted screenplay and Nolte getting a nod as lead actor. Like much in Hollywood, the project was shelved.
By the time Dante Ariola, an acclaimed shooter of cleverly splashy ads, read the script nearly two decades later it must have been a little, shall we say, dated? But like Firth's character, Ariola was heading into his 40s and decided it was the kind of character study he wanted for his feature debut. The script's move into a totally wired world of cellphones, Google and security cameras feels a little forced.
When we meet Wallace Avery (Firth), he's a former top pro-golfer who's become a nerdy corporate type after hitting a slump he couldn't pull out of. His dreary life is slowly drowning him. And so he stages his death near the ocean, leaving his ex-wife, his estranged adolescent son (Lucas Hedges), his dissatisfied girlfriend (Anne Heche) — and theoretically his troubles — behind.
Rechristening himself Arthur Newman, he heads to a swank Terra Haute country club, where a job as the resident golf pro awaits.
Mike (Blunt) is her own bundle of angst. To the pretty grifter with family issues — an institutionalized schizophrenic twin sister at the top of them — Arthur seems like nothing more than an easy mark. Soon enough they throw in together and amuse themselves on the road by trying on other people's identities, which is both harder, and easier, than figuring out their own.
It starts innocently enough. A just-married older couple is cuddling in the pickup truck in front of them on a lonely highway. It's not too much of a stretch to believe the serendipity of seeing the couple pull up to the farmhouse and leave for a honeymoon a few minutes later, almost leaving the door open for Mike and Arthur to make themselves at home. The bad-boy biker and his leather-clad chippie are another matter. Very soon sex happens, as does some sweet stuff and that unprintable "s"-word as well.
Blunt and Firth do an admirable job with their mismatched pair. But it doesn't take long before this very loose-knit film begins to unravel. And when the movie shifts to the home front, it gets into serious trouble. Son Kevin, who never had time for dad, is suddenly bonding with the girlfriend. Played as a mousy type by Heche, Mini nevertheless favors a slip and not much more when she's puttering around Wallace's apartment whipping up breakfast for Kevin or showing the kid Internet clips of his dad playing golf on the circuit during his heyday.
The promise it begins with doesn't pay off. And while "Arthur Newman" is not a complete disaster, it does leave you wishing the romance and the ride had been a whole lot smoother.
MPAA rating: R for sexual content, language and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: In select theaters