The Slow Dawn of Surprise

Lovely by Surprise

lovely-1.jpgIt is a car salesman that carries writer/director Kirt Gunn’s Lovely by Surprise on his shoulders until the movie blossoms.

To his credit, Bob doesn’t actually sell cars. In the automobile-sales process, he dispenses hackneyed life advice, admonishing his customers that they need to spend more time with their families, and do they really want to part with that old clunker, filled as it is with memories? He is played with sincerity by Reg Rogers, in the sense that Bob means everything he says. But there’s a fakeness, a performance, about Bob — a smiling, cheery devil-may-care mask that makes him both inscrutable and intensely compelling.

A genuinely independent movie, Lovely by Surprise hit DVD this week after playing the festival circuit, and what’s surprising is that it’s as successful as it is.

Two of its three plot threads — the ones clearly connected from the outset — are tedious individually and together. The opening invokes the well-worn creator/creation dynamic already explored thoroughly and entertainingly in The Truman Show and Stranger Than Fiction, as author Marian (Carrie Preston) talks about how one of her characters understands that he’s something other than a free-willed human being. In the movie’s first shot, she faces the camera and on the wall behind her looms a painting of a monkey and a typewriter.

When the movie shifts to the “fiction,” it consists of emotionally stunted adult brothers in their snug briefs on a boat on dry land fishing for breakfast cereal: Jelly Filled Frosted Sugar Balls.

Monkeys and typewriters indeed, but this ain’t Shakespeare.

It’s not that there aren’t moments of interest beyond the aggressive oddity. Marian has a mentor (Austin Pendleton) who instructs her to kill the self-aware character, but one doubts the purity of his motives: His smile suggests an ill-concealed, impatient hard-on for his pupil. His wife’s zingers represent a withering critique of her husband’s immaturity as well as an indulgence of his obvious flaws. And while most of the boat story is standoffishly outré, the scene showing the discovery and malicious destruction of a compass is symbolically significant without being overbearing; Gunn gives the gentle emphasis it requires.

lovely-3.jpgBut for most of its running length, Lovely by Surprise feels ill-conceived. It appears that we’re supposed to be invested in Marian and her novel, but based on what we see of the boat brothers Mopekey and Humkin, she’s not a good or seasoned writer, and her struggles with her book are therefore not engaging. Her relationship with her teacher is a cliché. And he’s super-creepy — and later just an asshole in a Santa suit.

Then there’s Bob, who has no apparent link to these unpromising stories but sustains your interest in them. He has a shockingly patient boss (Richard Masur) who approaches his sales-pitch deficiencies incrementally: Today, he says, I want you to talk to a customer without scaring him off.

Bob also has a silent daughter, Mimi, but he’s so ill-equipped to even converse with her that it seems that they’ve barely been introduced. After picking her up late, he notes that any day when somebody doesn’t die or get hurt is a good day. He asks: Did anybody die at school today?

Beyond having a clueless father, Mimi is obviously troubled. She has a habit of standing fully clothed on the end of the diving board — not threatening to jump into the neighbor’s pool, but not ruling it out, either.

With its whiff of whimsy, this narrative thread (like the others) isn’t remotely realistic, but it is human and in a way adult. As strange as he is, Bob is recognizable and relatable. Rogers makes him simultaneously warm and distant, wise and confused, and one can sense his pain and aimlessness without ever having to see them.

Then one day the fat boat brother walks onto the car lot, wearing only his underwear of course, and Bob has been given an ultimatum by his boss, and the nearly naked chubby guy wants hot dogs. My heart sank. The bleeding together of realities and fictions had begun, and I feared a self-satisfied, self-referential cop-out in the spirit of Adaptation.

It certainly plays like that for a while, but Gunn has an earnest agenda, the discipline to keep it mostly hidden from view, and the writing chops to play fairly. My atypical circumspection about that agenda stems from wanting to preserve the experience of the movie rather than its surprises; Lovely by Surprise shows its meticulously constructed beauty only after it’s over.

lovely-2.jpgThat’s because it requires after-the-fact decoding. Bob is revealed as the movie’s central concern as the plots casually converge in the urgency of the climax, but there’s still the problem of the Sugar Ball brothers and their functions. Yet Gunn, with a simple, ingenious character switch, concisely provides the symbolic key to unlock the movie — and you work back from there, spotting significance in places and moments that seemed fallow before. As you explore, a poignant, resonant, and psychologically perceptive work emerges.

In retrospect, we can see that the value in Marian’s work comes from the writing process rather than the product, and that her lecherous teacher, in his glib, dismissive manner, offered her the best advice she could have gotten: Do something dangerous. Her tale of the grounded boat and its stuck siblings is not interesting per se but meaningful in context.

Lovely by Surprise is itself risky — alienating the audience as part of its strategy. It’s effective only to the extent that you think through it, but it forces you to think through it. And once you do, you see how skillfully it dances around its true subject; it’s never directly about what it’s about.

Honestly, I would love to see a film just about Bob and his boss and Mimi, and I know I would like it better, at least initially. But Gunn’s movie has a sly literary quality that ultimately justifies choices that at first seemed strange at best. As much as I disliked two of the movie’s three major components, they’re integral to its success, and within the whole they work wonderfully.

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