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Our review of Lovely By Surprise, published July 8th, 2009, is also available.
"Their world may not be real, but the connections are real."
Lovely by Surprise (Region 2) is an odd little movie that proves surprisingly affecting. Though the plot borders on the fantastical, the film introduces us to a handful of characters who, within a relatively short amount of time, we come to be fully invested in and care for. At its heart the film is a story about connections; both the connection between reality and fiction, and the connections the characters share with each other. The film centers on the character of Marian (Carrie Preston), who finds herself (not necessarily intentionally) exploring unresolved issues in her personal life through the writing of her latest novel. Chief amongst the issues Marian comes to address is a troubled affair with her old writing teacher (Austin Pendleton). Clearly Marian struggles to let go and make a clean break from this relationship, despite knowing she should, and this inability to let go extends to her novel, where she finds herself unable to kill off her protagonist, despite being assured it is the best thing to do.
This is where the film gets a little weird. Early in the film, when discussing her novel, Marian reveals how Humkin (the protagonist of her book) is self aware enough to know that he is a fictional character, and how events in the real world directly influence his actions. When Marian finally makes the decision to kill him off, Humkin makes a break for freedom from his fictional world, and rushes headlong into the life of Bob (Reg Rogers), and his daughter Mimi (Lena Lamer). Considering Humkin's actions had previously been influenced by events in the real world, it seems perfectly fitting that, now free, he should go on to affect the lives of real people.
Though Lovely by Surprise is Marian's story, it is Bob's journey that proves to be the most involving. Much like the relationship he shares with his daughter, Bob is desperately sad. Having lost his wife, Bob is left to raise his daughter alone. And though there is undoubtedly love there, the connection the two shares is fractured. As the film progresses, it is Marian's thread that serves to tie events together, but it is Bob's story that really acts as the heartbeat of the film. The acting in Lovely by Surprise is universally excellent, but special praise should be reserved for Reg Rogers who plays the tragic Bob. Having lost his wife and been left with a young daughter who refuses to talk, Bob is clearly struggling to move on with his life. Formerly a successful car salesman, Bob now finds it impossible to close a deal. He instead provides a bizarre kind of therapy to prospect buyers, asking them what hole they are trying to fill by purchasing a new vehicle. Rogers' performance really gets to the heart of this broken man, who only wants to please people, yet seems incapable of understanding exactly what it is they need.
There's a very real synergy between each component of Lovely by Surprise that elevates it to, if not true greatness, then something close. On its own, there is the possibility that the quirkiness and complexity of Gunn's screenplay may prove incomprehensible for less patient viewers. But thanks to the cast, who all prove to be perfectly in tune with Gunn, and a suitably quirky soundtrack, even the more bizarre elements of the plot are easily digested.
Gunn's writing and direction immediately draws comparisons to the works of Charlie Kauffman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Wes Anderson (Rushmore). The story, which sees the characters of a novel break into the real world, recalls the metafiction of Kaufmann's Synecdoche, New York and Adaptation, while the characters—more pertinently their dialogue—share the odd mannerisms and ponderings one would normally associate with Anderson's creations. While these comparisons are impossible to ignore, Lovely by Surprise never feels like anything but a wholly original picture. There's a warmth throughout the film that is undeniable, even when it is hard to pinpoint exactly where it is coming from. Gunn takes the story to some unexpectedly dark places, and at times it is difficult to see how the various plot threads can possibly come together. This mysteriousness is never alienating for the viewer, and only further adds to the investment we put into the fates of these wonderful characters.
The screener sent for review featured a sharp picture, with excellent levels of detail. Backing up the strong video presentation is a crisp 5.1 soundtrack. The supplemental materials are a little light on the ground, but are headlined by an excellent commentary track, in which director Kirt Gunn not only entertains, but also sheds light on some of the less obvious elements of the story, thus granting any unsure viewers a better understanding of the film. Beyond that and a trailer, the sole extra feature included is a deleted scene.
Lovely by Surprise aims high and rarely falters. For a directorial debut, this is quite remarkable, and is fully deserving of an audience beyond the festival circuit.
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Studio: Eureka Entertainment
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