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Don’t you wish you were ‘Arthur Newman’? Colin Firth does

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Wallace/Arthur Colin Firth

Mike Emily Blunt

Mina Anne Heche

Cinedigm Entertainment Group presents a film directed by Dante Ariola. Written by Betsy Johnston. Running time: 101 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday at local theaters.

Updated: May 28, 2013 6:38PM

The problem with “Arthur Newman” is we can’t help liking Arthur Newman because all onscreen evidence tells us Arthur Newman is an exceedingly kind soul — and yet Arthur Newman has pulled a stunt so irredeemably selfish we want to grab Arthur Newman by the lapels and say, “What were you thinking, Arthur Newman!”

Except we wouldn’t call him Arthur Newman because that’s not his real name.

This being 2013 and unofficial cinematic law being what it is, I will now issue a spoiler alert and encourage you to turn the page or click away if you want to see “Arthur Newman” without knowing certain key plot points that must be discussed if this review is to run longer than the end of this sentence.

It’s hard to argue against any movie top-lined by the great Colin Firth and the beguiling Emily Blunt, but it does feel like a bit of stunt casting to have these two British actors as the very American leads in this offbeat, sometimes self-congratulatory road movie romance about a guy of a certain age who wants to reinvent himself — and hey, what a convenient happenstance when right out of the gate he stumbles upon an intoxicatingly beautiful and troubled younger woman in desperate need of rescuing.

Firth has a kind of everyman handsomeness that allows him to play the dashing leading man in period-piece and modern British romances, as well as the kind of forgettable American guy you’d be hard-pressed to describe to a police sketch artist should the need arise. In “Arthur Newman,” his real name is Wallace Avery, a former professional golfer and divorced dad stuck in a nowhere job and an apparently passion-free relationship with a co-worker (Anne Heche, in a typically solid performance). Wallace makes fumbling attempts to connect with his son, who despises him and hides all the unwrapped gifts from his dad under the bed.

If you worked with Wallace, he’d be the guy you called “Walter,” the guy you’d neglect to include on the group email about the company softball team.

Wallace knows this about himself, and he’s had it. It’s either disappear into the ocean or become someone else — so he does both. Wallace Avery leaves behind enough clues to convince the authorities and his loved ones he’s dead, and he transforms himself into Arthur Newman, a charming bachelor who has lined up a job as golf pro at a country club in Terre Haute, Ind.

Arthur is still practicing his new name out loud (“Hello, I’m Arthur Newman,” “How’s life treating ya, I’m Arthur Newman!”), when he has an “only in the movies” encounter with Mike (Blunt), who’s a bit of a kleptomaniac, a hard-core party girl and a similarly disenfranchised soul looking for her own ticket to escape.

Cue the road trip adventures.

Arthur/Wallace, who internalizes his issues, clearly needs therapy, whereas Mike is a self-appointed “free spirit” who comes from a family with a long history of mental illness. He’s in mid-life crisis; she’s afraid she’ll join her twin sister “in the loony bin,” as she puts it.

First-time feature director Dante Ariola (working from a script by Becky Johnson) has a good feel for these characters and keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. “Arthur Newman,” however, spins its wheels with repeated vignettes hammering home the whole “I wish I could be someone else” theme. Arthur and Mike spend a lot of time talking about their problems, but it’s almost as if they’re trying to convince us they’re screwed up. Because even as they’re committing all sorts of crimes against the law and normal social behavior, they’re so darn likable and so obviously right for each other, the ragged edges don’t feel authentic. These two people are adorably broken.

There’s also the lingering matter of Wallace’s staged disappearance. Even if Wallace’s ex-wife couldn’t care less about him and he knows his girlfriend won’t exactly crumple in a heap of heartbreak, what kind of a man puts in motion an elaborate disappearing act that will convince his teenage son he’s dead? So the kid resents you, so what? He’s still your son.

Of course good people do terrible things. Of course a movie can be made about such a man. We just don’t see evidence Wallace Avery would be capable of that kind of calculating cruelty, even on his worst day. So while we’re watching this utterly charming and perfectly entertaining little piffle of a road movie about two damaged souls who just might be able to save each other, we never quite shake the disdain we have for the horribly selfish stunt that set the whole thing in motion.

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