Lots of people want to escape their past. Wallace Avery wants to escape his present. Which he does, pretty much before the opening credits are over in “Arthur Newman.”
That’s to be his new name. Plainly, he’s given it some thought in advance, as he meets the unsavory dealer in phony IDs (M. Emmet Walsh), purchases the sort of car he figures Arthur Newman would drive (a late-model Mercedes 380 SL convertible) and fakes his death.
The pleasures of “Arthur Newman” come from figuring out the life he left, the dream he clings to for the future and the traveling companion he stumbles into on his way from Orlando to Terre Haute, Ind.
Colin Firth gives Wallace/Arthur a nice end-of-his-tether depression and desperation. He’s been laid off from Fed Ex. He’s divorced and estranged from his teenage son (Lucas Hedges, quite good). He’s dating a woman (Anne Heche) who is constantly disappointed in him.
So why not plan a rather obvious but seemingly fool-proof death, disappearing from a beachside park near Jacksonville? Why not stuff your savings into a gym bag, toss the golf clubs in the trunk and hit the road?
But that’s where he meets Mikaela, aka “Mike.” She’s blitzed out of her mind when the cops grab her, stealing the car of some man she’s lured with her wiles. And she follows that by overdosing on a chaise lying beside Arthur’s motel pool. His humanity shines through as he “saves” her. The fact that she looks like Emily Blunt doesn’t hurt.
It turns out Mike is on the run from her real identity, too. She’s streetwise, a petty thief with a mania for dressing up and play-acting in other people’s clothes in other people’s houses. Arthur, wounded soul that he is, can’t help but be smitten. But even he has to see what a train wreck she is.
Veteran screenwriter Becky Johnston (“Seven Years in Tibet,” “The Prince of Tides”) has concocted a melancholy, wistful and delusional romance that two very good actors bring to life. There’s barely a hint of whimsy in their odyssey, despite their bemused selection of odd people whose homes they invade, the dress-up that comes with each home invasion and the beds they muss. This is more “Something Mild” than “Something Wild.”
But Firth and Blunt handle their characters’ many revelations with care and play with layers of hurt and disappointment with great sympathy and pathos. Whatever they’re running from, each has an inner humanity that only the other seems to sense. And if that’s not the makings of a winning offbeat romance, nothing is.