CAPSULE: Newcomer writer/director/producer Kirt Gunn gives us a strange absurdist fantasy on the subject of the relation between an author and her characters. Three stories are told simultaneously. One is of an author, one of the characters she is writing about, and a third world seems to strangely link the other two. The film is bizarre and at times touching, but in the end leaves the viewer perplexed and a little unsatisfied with the stories. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
It is frequently said by authors that their characters take on a life of their own, and sometimes are even uncooperative. LOVELY BY SURPRISE is not the first fantasy in which a novelist creates characters who will not cooperate with the author. But this fantasy is a little different because the relationship between author Marian (played by Carrie Preston) and her characters Humkin (Michael Chernus) and Mopekey (Dallas Roberts) is so enigmatically set up. In many ways Marian is totally at the mercy of her fictions. In many ways she is the weakest character of the film. As she suffers from writer's block she goes for help from Jackson (Austin Pendleton), her former writing professor and erstwhile lover. Jackson tells Marian that she has no choice but to kill her main character. How this could possibly work for Marian is unclear, because in her story there are just two brothers who live on a houseboat in the middle of a field. Humkin and Mopekey live like five and six-year-olds, running around in their underpants and playing childish games. Their only sustenance is milk and sugared cereal inexplicably delivered to the houseboat. Marion knows that without Humkin she will have only Mopekey on a houseboat in the middle of a field, and no story to tell. She lets Jackson bully her into trying to kill off Humkin in her story. But by this point Humkin has more power than Marian.
Meanwhile, in an apparently unrelated thread, Bob (Reg Rogers) is a car salesman whose philosophy will not allow him to sell a car. He analyzes each of his potential customers and explains only too accurately how they need something else in their lives more important than a car. ("Buying a car will not protect you from evil.") His empathy for his customers stands in the way of his career. Yet ironically, in his personal life widower Bob cannot produce enough empathy to reach his six-year-old daughter, Mimi (Lena Lamer), who has remained silent since she lost her mother. Bob is a single character in both Humkin's world and in Marian's. He is a thread linking the two worlds together with his own world that intersects both.
Generally in fantasy film there is an underlying logic that explains the rules by which the story works. Writer/director Kirt Gunn gives us a weakly structured film with no such simple explanation of the rules. Worlds and half-worlds just intersect without explanation, as enigmatic as the houseboat in the field. One rather expects a fully developed--if alien--world as we had in I ♥ HUCKABEES or the literary fantasy STRANGER THAN FICTION. Kirt Gunn's world has logical contradictions that leave the viewer wondering if Bob can be in the same world as both Humkin and Marion, can't Marian and Humkin somehow get together? Gunn seems to want, as one of his characters says "to see things as they absolutely are not. With the possible exception of Bob, the characters are not fully fleshed out. The novelty of the world gets in the way of character development. This is not a fatal flow, but it damages the effect of the final film.
Quirky but not really engaging, LOVELY BY SURPRISE is heavy on surprise but light on lovely. Neither the idea nor the characters are fully satisfying. I rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper