Didn’t much care for “Surprise Me!,” a wan little romantic comedy about an event planner with commitment issues, trust issues, dead daddy issues and food issues.
It has an ending that I didn’t guess until about 25 minutes before it arrived, so I’ll give them that.
But watching the air go out of this balloon one is struck by how bland, if pretty, the cast is — mostly — and with that being the case, how does one work up empathy, that magical shortcut that puts us in the shoes of the characters going through the story on screen?
Fiona Gubelmann is Genie, our leading lady, an utterly generic pretty blonde who works for a surprise party planning company, “Surprise Enterprise.”
It’s a small Chicago concern — so perhaps she’s a co-owner, with Steven (LaShawn Banks, funny), the gay boss as almost-best-friend.
They do things like fake an apartment open house so that two grandparents can be surprised for their anniversary when they think they’re condo shopping, or fake an arrest so that BFF Danny (Jonathan Bennett) never sees his surprise birthday party coming.
The trouble with life as she knows it comes from meeting someone. Jeff (Sean Faris) is a handsome, grinning cosmetic surgeon, the type who keeps running into her, and making overfamiliar judgments about how she’s dressed — he pulls a pricetag off her blouse — and shops (at the supermarket).’
Such movies live and die on “meet cute.” This is “meet annoying.” But at least that suggests an emotional response, something this picture never achieves.
Jeff is a “never let an argument get started” type, living on giving and getting “the benefit of the doubt.” Genie “cares enough to argue.”
It’ll never work out.
Genie lost her dad, and tactlessly brings that up to her remarried mother and stepdad, has commitment issues and a weakness for baked sweets — cake, cupcakes, donuts — that suggest an eating disorder.
Which is why she starts seeing a therapist. Veteran character comedienne Nicole Sullivan (“Scrubs”) has just a few scenes and her sparkle and animation glaringly give-away what this blase’ picture lacks — life.
“All day, all night, catch the feeling before you bite!” this “Nobel Pizza Prize” laureate counsels.
Sullivan’s few scenes demonstrate that energy, pacing and casting are working against this chore of a comedy. The two guys allegedly “competing” for Genie’s attention (Danny is in the “friend” zone, even if Genie’s mother wishes otherwise) are, to be as tactful as a review can manage, dully interchangeable.
Courtship montages through the summery sights of Chicago fall flat. Only in the friendly confines of the office of therapist Ellen, with Sullivan acting with her arms, her head, her face, her eyes and her voice, does “Surprise Me!” ever come close to coming to life.
Sullivan sparkles. Nobody else does, and that smothers the movie, surprise or no surprise.
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult situations
Cast: Fiona Gubelmann, LaShawn Banks, Nicole Sullivan, Jonathan Bennett, Sean Faris
Credits: Written and directed by Nancy Goodman. An Indie Rights release.
Running time: 1:42