Lovely by Surprise (2007)

Director/Screenwriter: Kirt Gunn

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There’s great appeal to stories in which imaginary characters take on a life of their own. How magical that an imaginary, perhaps idealized world can suddenly become real! Of course, the flip side of that wonder is the fact that when our real and imagined lives start to cross, we most likely have lost our marbles. Stranger Than Fiction was a comedy that took the easy way out of this dilemma by having the fictional character at the center of the film, relieving his creator of charges of lunacy. Lovely by Surprise centers on a first-time novelist whose characters escape from her book because she has been untrue to herself. This much more serious literary and human dilemma adds depth to the fanciful wish-fulfillment that stories of this type traffick in.

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Marian (Carrie Preston) has been consulting with Jackson (Austin Pendleton), her former writing teacher, about her work in progress. As Marian reads to Jackson, we see her main characters, brothers Humkin (Michael Chernus) and Mopekey (Dallas Roberts), dressed only in their undershorts, on a ship in the middle of an open plain. They fish for their food, fearing a shark at the end of the hook, but bringing up boxes of cereal time and again. They spend their days opening these boxes to get the prizes inside, waiting for a driver to deliver milk so they can eat the cereal, playing word games, and watching television. Marian says Mopekey is happy to stay on the ship, but that Humkin wants to explore the world. Jackson thinks the book has promise but that it lacks a central conflict. He tells Marian that she should have Mopekey kill Humkin for wanting to leave him behind. Marian is deeply disturbed by this idea, saying that her book is about optimism; Jackson calls her a coward and insists that’s what the book needs. She says she will think about it.

The scene shifts to a salesman named Bob (Reg Rogers) sitting behind a desk talking with a customer about buying a car. Bob tries to assuage the customer’s uncertainty with soothing, medium-pressure tactics. When he convinces the man to buy the car, Bob changes course and asks him if he really wants, really needs a new car. His old car is full of wonderful memories, isn’t it? He’s missing quality time at home with his family right now by sitting with Bob discussing a deal, isn’t he? The man agrees and leaves without buy a car.

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Bob’s boss Dave (Richard Masur) displays fatherly concern for his good friend, who we learn has recently lost his wife, gives him a pep talk, and tells him he’s two hours late in retrieving his 6-year-old daughter Mimi (Lena Lamer) from school. Bob fetches Mimi, who, also traumatized, has been refusing to speak. He gives confusing instructions about who will make dinner, drops her off on the street to walk home, and goes back to the dealership. When another customer flees after Bob scares him away with admonishments to spend time with his loved ones before it’s too late, Dave confiscates Bob’s company car and promises to return it the minute Bob makes a sale.

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These two stories, which not only seem disparate in focus, but also in time—Marian in the present and Bob wearing leisure suits and selling 1970s cars—come together when Humkin, destined to die under the milk truck, runs “like a rocket” right into Bob’s dealership. Bob, who has been warned he must not scare another customer away, takes the scantily clad Humkin for a test drive. Finding Humkin to be rather insane, Bob takes him home for the night. Mimi is delighted with Humkin, and soon starts to come out of her shell. Marian, in the meantime, is going frantic looking for Humkin (“the best part of me”), whom she realizes after finding sheets of paper scribbled with dialogue strewn around her apartment, is now alive and fleeing from her.

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Lovely by Surprise maintains a delicate balancing act, keeping the audience confused about the direction of the story for quite some time, while offering clues to the observant viewer as to what Bob and Marian have in common. It’s fairly easy to stay with the film because screenwriter and first-time director Kirt Gunn has created a very likeable cast of characters. Bob and Dave, beautifully played by veteran character actors Rogers and Masur, look like used-car salesmen and speak in the clipped patois so reminiscent of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross hucksters. But Bob and Dave are warm, kind men, and it’s hard to imagine that they live down to the reputation of their profession. Bob’s pain and frustration with Mimi, needing her to console and likewise console him, never really become explosive or scary.

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Marian is a person anyone can relate to—though, of course, writers will relate to her most closely. She’s young, trying something hard, something that requires her to dig deep into unexplored areas. Her fear drives her to seek the advice of a man who not only can’t do what she can, but also wishes to seduce her. Austin Pendleton always seems a bit slimy just by the shape of his front teeth, and his Jackson is pushy and offhand with Marian, but he also manages to come through for her. For that matter, Jackson’s dizzy wife Helen, wonderfully played by Kate Burton, knows when to be drunk and when to be sober; she’s never as oblivious as Jackson or the audience may think.

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I absolutely adored Humkin. He spouts nonsense that he’s learned from the television, and is an utter innocent. But he knows what has been happening to him and understands what Bob needs to do to reach Mimi. He’s comic, and huggable, and certainly is the best part of Marian, that is, if she wishes to remain a child.

I thought the script was very well written, cleverly constructed, and varied in tone to create the two worlds Marian and Bob inhabit. I also liked the use of the Memphis locations, perfectly chosen to reflect the fantasy world of Humkin and Mopekey, the suburban milieu of Bob, and the intellectually rarified world of Jackson and Helen. I even liked Marian’s garret!

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But there was just something missing. The story Gunn tells is moving, yet I felt fairly unmoved. I liked and cared about these characters, but my feelings just didn’t go very deep. Carrie Preston is very sweet as Marian, but like her character, she may have shied from taking that leap of faith to the underlying emotions that power her story. Yes, this film was surprising and lovely, but it was perhaps just a bit too delicate.

  • Rick spoke:
    9th/06/2009 to 11:27 am

    Thanks for putting me onto this. It’s going onto the Netflix queue …
    I LOVE Pendleton and think he’s in not nearly enough flicks these days. I remember him especially fondly from Bogdanovich’s “What’s Up Doc,” but of course he worked a lot at one time.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/06/2009 to 11:40 am

    Pendleton is one of those character actors who immediately draws attention to himself in whatever role he’s playing. The last one I saw him in before this film was The Notorious Bettie Page. He plays a somewhat slimy teacher in that one, too.

  • Greg spoke:
    9th/06/2009 to 1:01 pm

    I’d like to see this too for personal reasons. Carrie and I were in a production of A Doll’s House years ago (she was Nora, I was Krogstad) and I found her to be a superb stage actress so I’m curious about your line about her holding back because I know from that play as well as other classic drama she’s done that she can really let go when she wants. Also, except for her great comic turn in My Best Friend’s Wedding I haven’t seen her in anything so this sounds like a good movie to go with.
    I have an old photo of Carrie and I in the production but I dare not put it up. I was forced to grow a moustache for it and I’d rather those photos NEVER be seen.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/06/2009 to 1:42 pm

    Interesting, Greg. Perhaps it wasn’t her, but rather her character. When I was writing this review, she was the least distinct in my memory, a real fadeout. Even though she is the center of action in so many ways, Marian just doesn’t have a lot to do or come into focus. And because it really is her story, that means I couldn’t commit wholeheartedly on an emotional level.

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