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Case Number 16767: Small Claims Court

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Lovely By Surprise

House Goat // 2007 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // July 8th, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge Adam Arseneau is ugly by expectation.

Editor's Note

Our review of Lovely by Surprise (Region 2), published December 21st, 2011, is also available.

The Charge

"Their world may not be real, but the connections are real."

The Case

An enigmatic and charming postmodern cinematic experience, Lovely By Surprise is the kind of film that could really only come from a straight independent, low-budget festival, because no studio would ever wrap their head around the plot long enough to fund it. There are a few films in circulation that come strikingly close in subject matter, like Stranger Than Fiction and Adaptation, but vary dramatically in their interpretations. These are films that make complicated and blurred the divide between reality and fiction, between real and imagined persons, and like its brethren, Lovely By Surprise is a poignant mix of intellectual curiosities and calamities.

Marian (Carrie Preston, True Blood) is a novelist with a severe case of writer's block. Her story is going nowhere—she has two brothers, Humkin (Michael Chernus) and Mopekey (Dallas Roberts), who exist within their own universe, a boat sitting in the middle of an empty field. They eat cereal and play with the free toys. One brother is completely content with his lot in life, happy with whatever the universe provides, while the other wonders what lies off the edge of the boat. Going to her old literary professor (and lover) Jackson (Austin Pendleton) for advice, he gives her a solution—kill off one of the brothers, add some conflict, some drama. She hesitates, but having no other options available to her, what else can she do? She writes a situation in which Mopekey kills Humkin, but things don't go quite as planned. Despite her best effort, the brother survives the attempt on his life, and, to her surprise, seems to gain some sentient abilities.

Realizing his life is in danger somehow, he flees the boat and takes off—into the real world, straight into a used car dealership, where he encounters the somber Bob (Reg Rogers), a widower still reeling from the death of his wife and rapidly running out of second chances with his employer. Seeing Humkin as his chance to sell a car, Bob takes the man in to his home and introduces him to his mute daughter, who hasn't said a word since her mother's death. Meanwhile, Marian realizes her character is loose in the world outside her literary control, and her grip on reality begins to slide into chaos and disorder.

Spending the last two years bouncing between film festival and independent screenings, Lovely By Surprise now makes its way to DVD, where it will hopefully find a deserving audience to appreciate its unique intellectual charms. A narrative blender of literary tropes and philosophical quandaries about the nature of the author and their narrative, the film is funny and surprising and confusing all at the same time, where an author and their fictional characters co-inhabit the same world. Like all good independent films, it swings for the bleachers on the first pitch, trying to be so many things—funny and profound and heartwarming and depressing and meaningful and irrelevant, and on and on. It is a credit to first-time writer/director Kirt Gunn that he hits so many targets on the first try.

Some recognizable faces are in attendance here; no A-level talent, but certainly Austin Pendleton and Carrie Preston are familiar. Reg Rogers as Bob turns out a surprising performance as the grief-stricken car salesman who loses touch with reality ever-so-slightly. His delivery is so unique, so stunted and detached that it often reaches brilliance. Rogers is an actor I haven't seen before, but after seeing Lovely By Surprise I wonder why he isn't a bigger name. Some of the performances are a bit over-the-top, but so is the narrative; it barely holds onto reality as it diverts into realms of intellectualism and surrealism. Once fictional characters who live on a houseboat in the middle of a field and eat cereal become sentient and escape into the world wearing only underwear, critiquing the dramatic quality of their performances becomes a moot point. A little oddball behavior is certainly justified.

A puzzle of narration and direction, Lovely By Surprise is a surprisingly fleshed out work of introspection; a complex journey into the writing craft, of memory and repression. The audience is strung like a set of Christmas lights from one end to the other, and only when the final frame rolls do we finally glow with pleasure. It might be in cinematic form, but Lovely By Surprise is all about the author, the writer strip mining away their psyche and memories for fuel for their narrative engine. Marian is the subject of the film even when she is not onscreen or even involved in the narrative; her characters spring from her own being, her own experiences and impressions of the world, her own hopes and dreams. No more about this should be said for fear of spoilers. Suffice it to say, there are numerous levels at work here, conversations with audiences about life and death, about authorship and ownership, about guilt and memory, all handled with grace and charm. It takes some time before the nuances of the film finally settle in your brain.

I say again, it is so delightful and unexpected to find such a mature and well-realized film in an independent production—and one with so little critical buzz about it! This may be the most surprising part of all. Lovely By Surprise may not be quite as stylish and quirky as a Wes Anderson film, nor as zany and deconstructive as a Charlie Kauffman film, but fans of those auteurs should find familiar scenery here, and will no doubt be impressed by the complexity of thought and execution put forth here.

We received a screener copy of Lovely By Surprise from House Goat, the production company of the film, so our copy does not represent the final release version from Indigenous Film Works. As such, we can't comment on supplemental features or technical specs, because we didn't get any.

Lovely By Surprise is both simplistic and complex, a strange introspective journey into the nature of fiction and narrative by tossing three completely detached stories into the same pot and swirling everything up—love, regret, grief, writer's block, existentialism, and black comedy. This kind of enigmatic meta-fictional narrative takes poise and skill to execute; like a nuclear warhead, such films must be primed, armed, and detonated just so in order to satisfy audiences. One misstep, one quirk too many and the plot is lost, but Lovely By Surprise hits every mark.

The Verdict

Lovely By Surprise lives up perfectly to its title—a lovely surprise. Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 89

Perp Profile

Studio: House Goat
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Comedy
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• None


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