June 20, 2009

REVIEW: Lovely By Surprise (B+)

Maybe the strangest thing about Stranger Than Fiction was that, despite all the gags and big stars preening for the cameras, the movie ultimately wasn't really about much of anything; it was simply an entertaining and decidedly quirky lesson on the perils of neuroticism.

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.

Humkin makes a break for it...
(photos courtesy Trey Clark)

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.


  1. Stranger Than Fiction was about Love! What more do you need??? Haha, ok I got that off my chest.

    I was deeply skeptical about this one going in. Subconsciously I was subscribing to Jeff Wells BS theory about movies not being any good if they've been on the shelf for too long.

    Imagine my surprise when I pretty much completely fell for it. Yes, I had a few problems with it narratively (more about that in a second), but the performances and the cinematography and the soundtrack were great. I also loved that it delivered a big emotional kick instead of just hiding behind quirkiness the whole time.

    Here's my reservation: ***MASSIVE SPOILERS*** The most appealing and interesting characters for me were Bob and Mimi. Marian I liked, but didn't love and her quest to get over writer's block was less interesting to me than Bob trying to get his shit back together. That's fine, but when Bob turns out to be Marian's father (or a representation of him in her memory) and he dies, it kind of left me feeling empty. Not cheated, because it made sense, but unsatisfied. I was so caught up in having Mimi finally speak to Bob, I wanted that to be the resolution.

  2. Hey, I'm no Stranger Than Fiction hater, but I know you're a huge fan so I should watch my tone around it, haha.

    Speaking of surprises, I'm shocked that this guerrilla marketing campaign has worked so well - pretty much everybody likes this movie, to a much more disproportionate degree than I would have expected.

    I agree that though it was pretty heavily on the quirky side, you're right that there was something a little more substantive behind it. Interesting that you were disappointed by that resolution at the end, because it's really what sealed/saved the movie for me. I was either too stupid (more likely) or just not into it through the movie to pick up on the obvious relationships, and though I did like the Mimi/Bob developments, it was that big kicker at the end that really twisted me up.

    And congrats on your big plug from the producers!

  3. This film really, really bothered me. Watching it was like sitting through a root canal for me.

    That being said, I hope it does well because the people behind it seem like sincere and creative people, and I would like to see them succeed despite my dislike of the film, a feeling I expressed to them in an email after I decided not to review it, not wanting to give it any major negative press.

  4. Aha, a negative response to it - extremely negative, haha.

    It's interesting that you mention that, Matthew, because I'm seeing this situation arise more regularly these days: filmmakers/producers reach out to all of us, and many of us either feel compelled to write a good review, or compelled to not write one at all. Is that right? It's a rhetorical question. I think it's great that you emailed them your thoughts and respected their efforts enough not to try to trash it, but in the overall scope of things I'm wondering if it's in the best interest of the filmmaker to have only positive reviews written.

    Kind of a strange future for indie film marketing and distribution. Anyone who's curious about this should check out this article in Filmmaker Magazine written by Jake Abraham, producer of Lovely By Surprise. This film's successful distribution may signal a major shift in the industry.

    But then, if some people - like Matthew - really hated it and stayed relatively quiet, are the filmmakers getting an inflated sense of how their work is received? Who knows.

  5. I think even the filmmakers acknowledge (at least they do in that filmmaker piece) that it's a divisive movie. There were a couple of moments myself where I thought I was going to turn on it. Mopekey and Humkin were tough to swallow at first, but as I said elsewhere, I really warmed up to Humkin when he bonded with Mimi.

    As I said about the final twist Daniel, for me it works great on paper, but by that point I was so invested in Bob/Mimi - it's really what finally engaged me with the story - that the way things turned out felt disappointing. I'll watch it again and see if it plays differently.

  6. Yeah I had to get used to Humkin, too, and I much preferred him off the boat. I think I would have been annoyed had it been all cereal all the time.

    Regarding your Bob/Mimi feelings, I'll add that it was a bit shocking to set up his character so deliberately before ending with that big scene. But I guess I liked the shock.

  7. I get the feeling that many of the positive reactions are coming from people who feel obligated to give it a positive reaction, because of how the producers reached out to us.

    If this was a film that was getting a lot of buzz off the blogs or was getting a decent release, I would definitely review it. I've given negative reviews to screeners I've received before, and it hasn't hurt my relationship with any publicists. They generally understand the risks of sending out their movies to critics...we're not always going to like them.

    That may sound cynical, but I'm the only negative response to it I've heard (except Miranda Wilding), so I can't help but be suspicious that a lot of the positivity is coming from people who are afraid to be negative. If that makes any sense.

    But with the nature of this campaign and the nature of the film's release, I just decided to give it a pass. I just didn't think they deserved what I would do to the movie if I actually sat down and reviewed it.

    They worked hard to get this done, and I don't want to be the one to spit on them.

  8. No, that's not cynical at all - that's kind of what I was trying to say in response to your original comment. And yet I wonder how this will progress in the future if there are a lot of movies released in this way. I'm with you - I want to respect the hard work they're putting into getting the film out and following up with us and everything, but if one of these movies is really bad (I don't think LBS is), then I hope people (bloggers) appropriately say so.


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