Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Lovely by Surprise

LOVELY BY SURPRISE (Kirt Gunn, 2007)

Being able to point people toward an unfamiliar but good movie--an overlooked gem, perhaps one that never escaped the festival circuit--is one of the most enjoyable things I can do as a film critic. Yes, negative reviews can be fun to write from time to time, but I didn't start critiquing films so I could piss all over the creative efforts of others. I'd much rather be championing movies than thrashing them, especially because I'd rather see good movies than bad ones.

I'm in my tenth year of doing film criticism online, so by now I'm on enough publicists' lists to be offered a decent number of screeners for review. Because there's only so much time in the day to watch and write about films, I tend to be particular in what I'll request. Granted, there is no guarantee that I'll like what I'll see, but I pick films that I think will interest and appeal to me. Maybe I'll uncover one of those underseen treasures.

Which is all a roundabout way of leading me to the troublesome case of LOVELY BY SURPRISE. I responded affirmatively when asked if I'd like to get a copy for review. After all, the independent comedy/drama from writer-director Kirt Gunn won the New American Cinema Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Seattle International Film Festival. Online reviews aren't plentiful, but most that I've found are glowing. It seemed like the sort of film that fell between the cracks and could use my drop in the bucket of critical support. Sounds good. And then I watched the DVD.

LOVELY BY SURPRISE layers scenes featuring three distinct sets of characters whose paths gradually converge, although not always in expected ways. The film's hub is Marian (Carrie Preston), who is writing an ambitious novel in which actions in the real world affect the characters in the book. Stuck on how to advance the story, she goes to her former writing professor Jackson (Austin Pendleton) for advice. He assesses that Marian's novel contains no conflict. Jackson proposes that this non-dilemma dilemma can be neatly resolved by killing off one of the characters. The idea troubles her, but she agrees to give it a shot.

Marian's underwear-clad characters reside in a houseboat in the middle of a field but cannot leave the landlocked vessel. For subsistence the author provides them with boxed cereal within a spear's throw and a milkman's deliveries. The stout Humkin (Michael Chernus), the one in the baby blue briefs, wants to abandon ship, but his brother Mopekey (Dallas Roberts), he of the yellow underpants, is determined to keep him onboard. When Marian attempts to kill Humkin, she presents the opportunity he needs to jump ship and the written page.

Connecting the separate scenes of the writer and her creations is easy to do, but it's less certain how the moments with grieving car salesman Bob (Reg Rogers) and his daughter Mimi (Lena Lamer) fit into the puzzle. After his wife's death Bob has taken to waxing philosophical with customers and talking them out of new vehicle purchases. He can't stop talking, but Mimi has clammed up.

LOVELY BY SURPRISE'S aggressive quirkiness is off-putting from the get-go and the biggest barrier to engaging with the film. The silly names and affected behavior of Marian's characters are the most glaring examples of a movie trying too hard to be unconventional, but it's the comedic and dramatic tones, off by a smidgen throughout, that can make the film insufferable at times.

While the final scene makes the gist of the film undeniably clear, specific questions arising from the opaque narrative aren't resolved in a satisfying manner. Every little uncertainty doesn't need to be answered, but LOVELY BY SURPRISE doesn't give the impression that it is operating with a consistent internal logic. Whether the blame stems from the screenwriting or editing is hard to say, although it probably can be attributed to both.

LOVELY BY SURPRISE employs flourishes of David Lynch-like dreaminess minus the menace. The disconnected feel, coupled with the annoying eccentricities, establishes another blockade to entering the film. Existing at arm's-length may achieve the goal of exploring the mental investment in creative work and the toll that authorial honesty and writer's block can take, but it makes for a displeasing viewing experience.

Although LOVELY BY SURPRISE drowns in its own preciousness, clearly it boasts some talent in front of and behind the camera. Preston, last seen stealing a scene as the corporate travel agent Clive Owen dupes in DUPLICITY, does a fine job balancing the fragility and intensity Marian draws upon to devote herself fully to her writing. Rogers is strangely compelling as a character obviously failing to hold himself together yet still retaining a measure of persuasiveness.

Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who also lensed Rian Johnson's BRICK and THE BROTHERS BLOOM, favors a soft, gloomy look with bursts of color that matches the film's emotional palette. Gunn displays an eye for interesting shot composition and maintains a good pace that keeps LOVELY BY SURPRISE watchable in spite of the irritations.

These positive qualities and the DIY effort to get the film seen are why I almost feel like I need to apologize for disliking LOVELY BY SURPRISE so strongly. Almost.

Grade: D+

(LOVELY BY SURPRISE is now available on DVD.)

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