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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Arthur Newman' features brilliant writing, acting

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Photo: Cinedigm ‘Arthur Newman’ stars Colin Firth and Emily Blunt.

ARTHUR NEWMAN

(R)

3 out of 4 stars

"Arthur Newman" is an odd duck of a movie. It's an art film starring two highly respected English performers playing down-and-out Americans who meet as each hits rock bottom. There's not a lot of plot and its brittle drama is often offset with uncomfortable patches of comedy and it's more than likely many die-hard fans each of the leads will hate it. What it lacks in overall depth is made up for with an economic, brilliantly written screenplay and high-wire-without-a-net acting.

Recalling in attitude the two '70s cult favorites "Harry and Tonto" and "Harold and Maude" and "Something Wild" from the '80s, "Arthur Newman" isn't so much about what is does but what it doesn't do. It refuses to spell everything out so everyone can get it or have the characters evolve and get force-fit into a neat and tidy ending. It takes a lot of chances and misses on a few of them but when it connects it does so with relish and brio. Even though the plot is thin, it is spooled out sparingly over the entire length of the film and the less you are privy to going in, the better.

Colin Firth plays Arthur (not his real name), a failed pro golfer, husband and father who has decided -- with much chagrin and second-guessing -- to fake his own death and move from Florida to Indiana in an attempt to get a fresh start. Shortly before departing he grudgingly comes to the medical and legal aid of Michaela, aka Mike (not her real name either), rendered with playful melancholy by the salacious, black mascara-encrusted Emily Blunt.

Long before Arthur figures it all out, Mike finds his fumbling and tentative demeanor (a longtime Firth staple) irresistibly endearing. Only after sneakily prying it out of her, Arthur discovers Mike is equally if not more damaged than he is and -- thanks to her frisky and unorthodox ideas regarding romance and ability to think on her feet -- is more than able to overlook her quirks and considerable deal-breaking personality traits.

Navigating the road to Indiana like a drunken sailor with good balance on a narrow boardwalk, Arthur and Mike pull off a series of impromptu encounters usually associated with ill-advised teens after too much imbibing and too many self-imposed dares. A couple of these scenarios go more than far enough to make their point and Canadian writer Becky Johnston (also a stand-up comedienne) makes one of her few missteps by including one too many of them.

When not focusing on Arthur and Mike, first-time feature director Dante Ariola explores the subplot involving Arthur's put-upon girlfriend Mina (Anne Heche) and his disgruntled teen only child Grant (Sterling Beaumon). Rightfully assuming Arthur is dead, Mina and Grant develop the kind of awkward relationship that only gestates between two people who've never met and are unwittingly brought together by a only by a mutual association.

In a perfect world, Mina and Grant would have already known (and probably hated) each other but it is because of Arthur's inability to cope with either of them that they discover their commonality. Their sustained, simultaneous love and hate of him is something many of us will find eminently identifiable and bittersweet.

Like Arthur and Mike, Ariola and Johnston crossed paths at the exact right time. His steady hand and eye for minute detail compliments her freewheeling, yet pointed abandon. Theirs is a creative partnership that will probably only extend to this production and for this brief time, it clicked quite well. It's far from perfect but it proved to be enlightening and fruitful. (Cinedigm)