Significantly more thought-provoking, but perhaps less polished, is writer-director Kirt Gunn's Lovely By Surprise, which naturally brings to mind a Charlie Kaufman-esque story about the tortured mind of a talented writer. Here, it's Marian (Carrie Preston), a novelist writing about "fictional characters who are affected by real life": brothers Humkin (Michael Chernus) and Mopekey (Dallas Roberts).
The infantile pair lives aboard a boat in a desolate field, and they survive on milk and cereal. It's clear Marian isn't willing to take many risks with her characters, consequently leading her mentor, Jackson (Austin Pendleton in a terrifically brief role), to convince her that no good story is complete without a tragedy: she has to kill off one of the brothers.
Meanwhile, in an apparently different (and real) place and time, lives Bob (Reg Rogers), a widower and helpless father to his traumatized daughter, Mimi. Bob is a car salesman who can't sell a car; his greatest talent is convincing people they don't actually need one. As Bob gradually works himself out of a job, we see Marian also gradually worrying herself out of a writing career. In a bizarre twist of fate, Marian's character, the clownish Humkin, escapes from her fictional world and shows up in Bob's actual life, thus setting into motions events that will change Marian and Bob forever.
In addition to maintaining an effectively delicate balance between drama and comedy, Kirt Gunn deserves a lot of credit for keeping all of the moving pieces of this complex story together. What initially feels like a loosey-goosey plot with unnecessary tangents soon matures into a touching parable with a storyline as tight as a drum. Impatient viewers may become frustrated trying to figure it all out, but the unforgettable final scene ties things together in a powerful way. In fact in that way, watching Lovely By Surprise is kind of like reading a novel.
But books have the significant advantage of time to affect a reader emotionally. Movies need to draw you in quickly, and the fact that you can watch a significant portion of Lovely By Surprise without knowing what's going on somewhat works against its ability to move the viewer. Because it has so much more emotional potential than Stranger Than Fiction, I would have liked to get more out of it along the way, not just toward the end (especially since the cast appeared so capable).
Nonetheless, Lovely By Surprise offers a tender-hearted story with a focus on characters as intense as Marian's. If it doesn't feature as many laughs as Stranger Than Fiction, Lovely By Surprise is, at the very least, likely to provide for better conversation after viewing. Kirt Gunn's next film, Metalhead, sounds as bizarre (if not more so) than Lovely By Surprise, which means it's probably just as surprisingly lovely.
Writing - 9
Acting - 9
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 4
Total: 44/50= 88% = B+
Lovely By Surprise is currently playing select cities in the U.S. and will be available via download and DVD (including Netflix) on July 7. More details at www.lovelybysurprise.com.