Having made its debut at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival (in the same year as Argo and The Master), indie drama Arthur and Mike only now turns up on British screens, despite leads in the form of two of Britain’s most successful acting exports, Emily Blunt and Oscar winner Colin Firth.
Firth plays Wallace Avery, a thoroughly unremarkable man whose life is fraught with failure and disappointment. With a failed marriage, an estranged son and a job he hates, he sees a new job opportunity as a means of starting again. He fakes his own death and becomes Arthur Newman, heading across America in a new car with a bag full of money, in search of a new life. Along the way he meets ‘Mike’ (Emily Blunt), a troubled young woman also on the run, and the pair begin a journey that will explore their past as much as their future.
The premise does initially capture the imagination – what would you do if you could start a new life as a different person? In Arthur and Mike’s case, sadly, not a lot. As the road unwinds in front of them, we are told the story of two rather dull and unhappy people, who find each other and resolve to become slightly less dull and unhappy. Their means of achieving this is to observe other, more happy people, break into their houses, assume their personalities briefly and have sex.
These incidents have their moments. The first act of trespass, where the pair take on the identities of a married couple, is quite tender. However, as voyages of self-discovery go, it’s hardly Seven Years in Tibet.
The difficulty in making a connection with the film can also be traced back to Wallace/Arthur himself. Presented as thoroughly boring, we are given no hint as to any extrovert lurking inside him. Indeed, this ‘new man’ doesn’t seem to be that different from the old one other than a new name and a penchant for cheerfully asking strangers “how’s the world treating you, friend?” Hints at a past career only serve to further the idea that our hero gets in his own way, and offers little solution to that problem.
With the script abandoning them, Firth and Blunt try gamely to create something between the lines and do manage a charming connection on screen, even if there is nowhere to go with it. Blunt in particular emphasises her character’s vulnerability, revealing Mike as a lost soul, rather than a dangerous misfit. Firth makes the best of a poor character, illustrating Arthur’s situation with a pained stillness. Of the small support cast, only Anne Heche and Lucas Hedges make an impression, playing Wallace’s girlfriend and son, who find an odd connection through a man they resent and miss in equal measure.
The film’s message of not being able to run from yourself is a worthy one, but can’t cover up over 90 minutes of aimless storytelling. As the credits roll, you’ll struggle to work out if there was a resolution to Arthur and Mike’s journey, or even a point.
Arthur and Mike opens in cinemas on Friday