This charming, low-key indie festival favourite started out on its unusual life as an online branding exercise for Lincoln-Mercury -- which probably explains why one of its lead characters winds up working as a salesman in a car dealers’ showroom. The original series of short ‘webisodes’ shot for the campaign subsequently found themselves expanded into scenes that were incorporated into a finished full-length feature, and “Lovely By Surprise” is the unexpectedly compelling result. While an advertising promotion doesn’t exactly sound like the most promising of seeds from which to grow this complex, emotionally mature little bloom, first time writer-director Kirt Gunn presents his viewers with a witty, warm-hearted and quirkily intelligent feature which investigates the scary personal forces and inner demons that inspire and motivate the artist to create; along the way it looks at how we choose to deal (or avoid dealing) with the traumas of the past, and how memory and imagination can come together to help us process inner conflict in productive and possibly emotionally healing ways.
Probably every single other online review of this film has floated the same group of names to hold in mind as touchstones for what to expect when embarking on a viewing of this, and I can only agree with the Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman references. It’s also true that the main concept bears an uncanny resemblance to that which lies at the core of the 2006 Will Ferrell movie, “Stranger Than Fiction”. But Gunn’s artful screenplay also invokes the subtle combination of emotional truthfulness and comic wordiness that informs the cinema of Woody Allen at his best; while at the same time, although the film’s surreal comic-tragic puzzle box narrative may also refer one to David Lynch’s more complexly layered works -- such as “Mulholland Drive” or “INLAND EMPIRE” -- it’s probably the folksy gentleness of “The Straight Story” that comes closest to capturing the film’s quiet way of presenting odd but emotionally resonant characters and their frail, abortive attempts to communicate with each other. Comic eccentricity and deep tragedy walk hand in hand, here, in an oddly fragmented world; but the apparently separate and unconnected narrative strands we’re initially presented with soon become coiled around a rich tapestry of plot; and the glue that makes them cohere is the gradual unveiling of the emotional life which spawned them.
If this is all beginning to sound just a tad cryptic, then that is quite deliberate: “Lovely By Surprise” is one of those films for which giving away too much detail risks detrimentally impairing viewer enjoyment. The ambiguous plot has been structured in such a way that key details reveal themselves gradually, in drips and drabs of structurally important, but apparently incidental information, which often come to change the status of much of what you’ve earlier taken for granted. One of the pleasures of viewing the film is letting this process unfold in the manner that was evidently intended by the filmmakers: upon second viewing, many apparently innocuous details become charged with sudden portentous meaning, but this is a process that can so easily be ruined by an injudicious word from a careless reviewer’s plot synopsis.
For example (and it’s by no means a massive spoiler that I’m about to relate here, but it is illustrative of the pull-back-and-reveal method also used on the really big revelations later in the film), very near the start of the story we’re introduced to two key but rather bizarre characters named Humkin (Michael Chernus) and Mopkey (Dallas Roberts). These two oddballs dress only in brightly coloured Y-fronts. Humkin is large, baby-like and fat; Mopkey is skinny and dishevelled. Both of them seem to behave more like overgrown children as opposed to the the adults they are in actuality -- and they appear to live by themselves on a large house boat. When we first meet them, the rotund Humkin is stood on the end of the boat’s diving board and Mopkey is fishing for something over the side of the boat. Eventually, the latter hooks something onto the deck: it’s a family-sized pack of breakfast cereal! Furthermore, the boat is stacked full of similar boxes of this (entirely fictitious brand of) cereal.
The camera then pulls back to reveal that the two strange, comical characters are in fact living on a boat that is not at sea, as we first assumed, but situated in the middle of a vast and barren field! These two live together like quarrelsome infant brothers in this offbeat sunshine wilderness, with no interaction with anyone else but a barely glimpsed figure in a van who delivers the milk on which they live (apart from the cereals) exclusively. The horizons of Humkin and Mopkey’s cloistered world extend no farther than their enjoyment of the anticipation of discovering what ‘prize’ they will be given with their breakfast box each day, and the illicit pleasure of peeing over the side of the boat.
The narrative’s second early revelation is that the adventures of Humkin and Mopkey -- these cartoon characters, behaving in a cartoon way in a whimsical cartoon world -- are actually the fictitious inventions of struggling author Marian Walker (Carrie Preston). We then alternate between the artist/author Marian in the real world, and some of these colourful, surreal enactments of her characters and the dreamlike landscape she’s trying to create for them for her novel.
All fairly straightforward (if a little quirky), no? … Well, the trouble starts when Marian consults a former college professor – who was, as it turns out, also at one time her married lover -- for some advice on how to proceed with the story. Her novel is predicated on a rather bizarre and unusual idea: one of her two characters, the main protagonist, the childlike Humkin, has been created to be aware that he is a character in a book, and to be affected by events in the real world. Rather than a normal, structured self-contained plot, Marian’s aim is to make her fictional characters react to events that are occurring in her own life at the time of writing, and in that fashion to craft a meta-narrative in which reality informs her fiction at a fundamental level. The trouble is Marian has run into a nasty bout of writer’s block; she’s hit a brick wall and can’t seem to get going again on the story. But ex tutor, Jackson (Austin Pendleton), finds the whole concept too implausible to be made the basis of a viable novel: for one thing, there is no conflict inherent in the scenario. With that in mind he gives her one key piece of writing advice: she must give herself problems to solve in the narrative, and the best way to do that is to take a risk and kill off the one character she’s most attached to – poor old Humkin!
While Marian wrestles with the awkward conundrum presented by this unwanted piece of advice (which might well get her writing again but risks changing the intrinsic nature of the book she originally intended to pen in the first place and thus alienating her from the project), and while Humkin and Mopkey in their own world start to act in ways that suggest Marian may be tentatively toying with this new approach, another apparently unrelated tale is also simultaneously unfolding: in this one, it’s sometime in the 1970s and Bob (Reg Rogers) is a car salesman working at a small Memphis car dealer’s lot, run by his old friend Dave (Richard Masur). Pete had always previously been one of the firm’s strongest salesmen, but after a terrible family tragedy he has developed a fatalistic, meditative frame of mind and in turn become somewhat isolated from his colleagues – all of which is not at all conducive to the hard selling of expensive motor vehicles. Instead of persuading and inspiring his customers with the idea that buying a new car will enhance and improve their lives, he instead spends more time ruminating on life, love and death with them, and emphasising that the client should ultimately be aiming to spend more time thinking about their relationships with the people that matter most to them, and not believing that their life can be improved simply by acquiring a bigger or better car -- since all their most precious memories may well ultimately be bound up in the vehicle they’d necessarily be replacing! Naturally this doesn’t go down too well with his boss, who’s trying his darndest to be sensitive and understanding during Pete’s difficult time, even though the strain is evidently starting to show as Bob scares off customer after customer.
Eventually, we learn that the personal tragedy which has affected Bob so badly relates to the death of his wife, an event which seems to have involved her in an accidental drowning, the nature of which is never fully explained. Bob is left to bring up his little daughter Mimi (Lena Lama) alone, but the girl is clearly having her own difficulties in coming to terms with her mother’s disappearance from her life and refuses to utter a single word to anyone. Bob and Mimi’s heart-breaking plight, in which neither can express or accept their loss in a way that might be able to bring them together to help each other in their mutual grief, is a perfect little capsule in of itself, beautifully played by Rogers (whose hazy spaced-out persona is the amusing source of more and more stress for his long-suffering boss) and by non-actress Lena Lama, the six-year old daughter of one of the other actors also appearing in the movie, who was cast after visiting the set with her father. The role she’s been given would seem to require a maturity and subtlety in order to play it well that one would expect to be beyond her years, so it is astonishing that this youngster had no previous acting experience at all; but as is frequently the case with children in movies, it is often the untutored, non-performance of the amateur that comes across as being the more truthful.
The turning point for all three narratives comes about when Marian finally kills off Humkin in her novel by having him flattened by the milk delivery truck. However, she becomes convinced that she has made the wrong decision and starts to have a breakdown over the issue. At this point, Humkin is of course aware of his scripted fate, but refuses to play ball, escaping the boat, the truck and the endless field, and finding himself in the real world, interacting and affecting reality in ways his author and creator could never have anticipated. Meanwhile, Humkin’s partner Mopkey also leaves his boat home in search of his missing friend … and winds up in the lives of Marian, Jackson, his caustic wife and their circle of literary friends, all of whom might be somewhat perturbed by the thought of an absurdist fictional character turning up unannounced in the real world!
The subtle crossing and merging of all three narratives, which previously had appeared each to exist within some well-defined and impermeable genre boundaries, creates a meta-fictional magical realism in which memory and imagination, art and reality come together to make a funny, sad, perplexing but ultimately satisfying examination of what lies behind the writer’s muse. Gunn masterfully pulls off with aplomb what could have been a self-regarding experimental exercise in lofty self-reflexivity -- more inclined to be admired for its cleverness than loved for its sincerity and heart. Although visually the film is strikingly distinctive, each shot framed and presented like a series of carefully composed pictorial studies by cinematographer Steve Yedlin, it’s the compelling characters and their quirky interactions and relationships that most hold the viewer’s attention. Marian’s ‘breakdown’ comes about just at the point in the film when the stylistic separation which marked out the three narratives also starts to irreparably break down -- the cartoon, primary coloured world of Humkin and Mopkey starting to bleach into the other two ‘realist’ narratives, altering the respective worlds of each group of protagonists. It’s perhaps intended as an artistic statement along the lines that you have to ultimately break the artistic rules you’ve learned in order to be truly creative, but the idea only works because of the all-round excellence of the performances from the ensemble cast – otherwise it could have so easily ended up proving the opposite!
Michael Chernus and Dallas Roberts are initially acting in a very different film from that of Rogers and Lama, and Preston and Pendleton -- but each character manages to blend his/her self into the others’ unique narrative lives and succeed in shedding light on the internal workings of these individual worlds, without the whole thing coming to feel strained or hopelessly pretentious. The production design, art direction and set dressing of Timothy Whidbee, Jeanelle Marie and Eric Brice Swartz respectively, are just as important in that regard -- not just for creating the unique mood of the piece, but for presaging the eventual merging of distinct isolated worlds with subtle signs and signifiers as the same objects, colour schemes and imagery starts to crop up in different contexts across each of the three narratives, subliminally preparing the way for the full integration (or full unravelling, depending on how you look at it) of order that comes later on.
All this is accompanied by a soundtrack of quirky indie musical pieces that fully embodies the sort of atmosphere of gentle sophistication, arch knowingness, effortless complexity, and childlike innocence and wonder that informs the general ambience of the movie. Melodic, faintly whimsical musical musings by Shelby Bryant and The Magnetic Fields’ frontman Stephin Merritt make up the majority of musical quotations, the whole thing playing out to the gravely grandeur of a gospel-tinged Tom Waits track. “Lovely By Surprise” is a truly affecting bittersweet tale of grief, loss and the triumph of the artistic spirit, presented here in a nice vibrant, clean-looking transfer by Eureka Entertainment on a UK DVD release also sporting an informative commentary track by director Kirt Gunn and actors Reg Rogers and Michael Chernus. There’s also a trailer and one deleted scene, as well as English subtitles for the hard of hearing. Very well worth seeking out.
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