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Wednesday, August 12, 2009
  DVD Review: Lovely By Surprise

Lovely By Surprise is an indie movie from rookie writer/director Kirt Gunn that really probably shouldn’t be as good as it is. It’s an incredibly ambitious film, tackling big concepts (the lines between reality and fiction and past and present, the purpose of art, etc.) that more well-known filmmakers have botched terribly, and it’s funny as hell to boot.

The story follows an author, Marian (played by Carrie Preston), who’s writing a novel about two brothers living on a boat (marooned on land) in the middle of nowhere, totally cut off from society – except for regular deliveries from a milk truck. (All they eat is cereal, so this detail kind of makes sense, in an odd way. Sort of.) The only problem – in addition to Marian’s writer’s block – is that one of the brothers seems to have figured out that she’s writing him. When she brings this to her mentor, her old professor and on-again-off-again lover, he tells her she has to kill her protagonist to give her book meaning.

Wrapped up in all of this are flashbacks to the ‘70s where we meet Bob, a struggling car salesman. He’s far too philosophical for his new job, discussing concepts like love and fear with his customers, and eventually talking them out of buying cars altogether (“He wasn’t ready,” Bob tells his boss after another potential sale walks out the door following an existential chat.) Pretty soon it becomes clear what ‘70s Bob has to do with modern-day Marian, but I won’t spoil it. As Gunn flashes back and forth between eras, we see the stress of her decision to “murder” her main character, as Marian’s mind begins to unravel.

Marian hard at work, contemplating murderIf all of this sounds a little bizarre, it sort of is, but in a good way. Lovely By Surprise is a very ambitious film, but Gunn pulls it off with aplomb; there’s a dozen different ways in which the movie could have fallen apart in less delicate hands, but somehow Gunn makes it all work. I’m still a little amazed by it, and I’ve watched it twice now.

Lovely By Surprise has a similar quirky aesthetic to Wes Anderson’s early work (specifically Bottle Rocket), before he started making films that take place entirely within odd little fantasy worlds – the final shot of the movie, in particular, is right out of The Royal Tenenbaums. And of course Gunn’s subject matter, the angst of the artist and the blurring of the border between fiction and reality (a theme I’m always interested in), is probably best known these days as the artistic stomping grounds of Charlie Kaufman, but Lovely By Surprise isn’t as consciously difficult to penetrate as, say, Synecdoche, New York (a movie I quite enjoyed, but seriously, what a mindf**k).

The other thing that grabbed me about Lovely By Surprise was the acting. Carrie Preston is excellent as Marian; much of the film rests on her shoulders, and she really makes it work. Late in the film she does and excellent job of making Marian plausibly seem like she’s starting to lose her grip (at one point she hits one of her characters with her car), but she doesn’t go too far over the top with it. And as a guy who’s dealt with writer’s block in the past (obviously not to this extent), I can sort of sympathize with her character’s desperation in some of the scenes. But the performance that really blew me away was Reg Rogers as Bob, the would-be car salesman. Rogers manages to be hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, especially the way in which he reveals through his performance the tragedy underlying his initially “quirky” exterior. Much of the story of Lovely By Surprise is the exploration of WHY Bob seems like such a space cadet. It’s not too often a movie has such a genuine emotional core and makes me laugh this hard, and Rogers is largely responsible for that. He’s amazing.

If there’s a flaw in the film, it’s that it wasn’t until I watched it with the commentary that I felt like I fully understood how every little piece fits together (though, to be fair, I’m only talking about some minor details; the overall arc of the film – including something that, I supBob walks his daughter, Mimi, to schoolpose, amounts to a “twist” at the end – is quite impressive and emotionally affecting, and not confusing at all if you’re paying attention). But that was also the case with Donnie Darko, and I quite liked that about it. The high concept at the center of Lovely By Surprise is a total tightrope walk, and Gunn never falls.

Lovely By Surprise a great exploration of the artistic process and how creative people channel their experiences into becoming art. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a fully-realized vision from a first-time filmmaker. I’m not in the business of predicting future Great Directors, but I’m pretty eager to see what else Gunn has in store. I hope he keeps making movies, because Lovely By Surprise is a hell of a debut.



The Lovely By Surprise DVD has a lone deleted scene and a commentary track with Gunn, and, I think, Reg Rogers (I was never entirely sure if it was Rogers; it’s possible they introduced themselves and I just missed it, but I could have sworn it just picked up with them talking). Overall the track is sort of dry, but commentaries on indie movies are often interesting if for nothing other than to learn about making a movie on a relative shoestring; during a party scene filled with extras, Gunn explains that after they were told that they wouldn’t actually be getting any free booze, about half of them left. I love stuff like that.

Buy Lovely By Surprise from Amazon here.

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