Niagara Gazette

April 30, 2013

CALLERI: New movie 'Arthur Newman' rides down an oft-traveled road

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — It’s said that everyone has a little bit of Walter Mitty in their heart, Mitty being the character who dreamt rich fantasies about himself in the short story written by James Thurber. The fellow even has its own movie, “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty,” from 1947, with Danny Kaye as the good-natured Walter, a sweet and unassuming sort who in his reveries fought in wars, appeared in courtrooms, and practiced surgery. The huge popularity of Thurber’s dreamer even led to a word being coined: Mittyesque.

And Hollywood, true to its unoriginal self, is releasing a remake of the “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” this Christmas, with Ben Stiller directing and starring.

The key to the success of Mitty as a tall tale and a beloved character is his mild-mannered demeanor, his conflicted personality notwithstanding. When dealing with simple souls, motion picture directors and screenwriters need to tread lightly. They need to keep the comedy soft and the melodrama relatable.

A character similar to Mitty exists in the new comedy-drama “Arthur Newman,” which stars Colin Firth as Wallace Avery, an unhappy guy who dreams of a different life. Why the smooth, controlled, and richly talented Firth chose to play a miserable middle-class American failure is anyone’s guess. He not very good at it.

In the film, Wallace will abandon his rocky world in Florida. He’s a disgruntled shipping company manager, with a son who hates him, as well as an ex-wife and a current girlfriend. Wallace fakes his own death, purchases a new identity (Arthur Newman), and heads for Indiana where he wants to be a country club golf pro.

On he road, he meets a dangerously bizarre kleptomaniac named Michaela, who goes by the name of Mike. She’s a throwback to that classic movie character: the zany female kook. She’s played by another Brit, the usually reliable Emily Blunt, who is also not so good here. The two become traveling companions, a step toward assuaging their loneliness.

When “Arthur” and “Mike” meet, she’s taken an overdose of cough syrup. Her life usually consists of breaking into people’s homes and putting on their clothes. However, she doesn’t stop there. She also imagines what their personalities are like. She could be considered certifiably insane. But for comedic purposes, she’s just a very odd duck, especially to Wallace, who finds her fascinating. He’s willing to go along on one of her surreal breaking and entering romps. The only upside for the smitten Wallace is that when the frigid Michaela puts on another woman’s clothes, she turns into an aggressive sexual being. Because of the film’s faults, we don’t believe that the straight-laced Wallace would participate in anything illegal. Back in Florida, Wallace’s teenage son will commiserate with his ex-girlfriend

No surprise here, but Wallace/Arthur and Michaela/Mike will have a series of misadventures that include police action and very silly misunderstandings, but nothing truly engaging. They’ll have encounters with a few other characters, mostly pleasant people wanting to help. The friendliness of middle America takes a beating.

In better hands, the material might work if the tone is set properly at the start of the picture. There are no better hands at work with “Arthur Newman.” From the beginning, the tone is off-kilter. This is the first feature directed by Dante Ariola, whose previous work was shooting television commercials. Nothing wrong with that, a lot of good directors have come from the advertising world. Ariola’s problem is that scenes play like one-minute commercials. They start and quickly build to the point of the moment. Alas, the scenes keep going on, long past the time when their purpose is obvious.

It also doesn’t help that the dialogue in Becky Johnston’s fragmented screenplay is uninteresting. Too much seems dated, which is the result of the fact that Johnston wrote the script many, many years ago. You can sense the updated sentences and sections. They come across as elements added to give a current feel to the film’s events and situations.

“Arthur Newman” is executive-produced by Vertebrae Films, which is owned by two Buffalonians, who are important members of the area’s medical community. Helen Cappuccino is a surgical oncologist and her husband Andrew Cappuccino is a spinal surgeon, made famous for saving the life of Kevin Everett of the Buffalo Bills. Their son Michael is credited with producing “Arthur Newman.”

Ultimately, the movie is not about redemption or retribution. It merely ends. Firth and Blunt keep you alert for a little while, but the familiar aspects of the weak script and the unsure direction work against them. The result is that you don’t care what happens to anyone.

For all its star power and quirkiness, “Arthur Newman” is a bland entry in the Walter Mitty wonderland.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.