by Jon Bastian
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Adapted from Travis Michael Holder’s play of the same name, Surprise, Surprise does not stray very far from its theatrical roots in this film adaptation directed by Jerry Turner, but that’s a good thing. In maintaining a somewhat static shooting style, the emphasis remains on the characters and relationships, which is exactly where it should be. There are more emotional fireworks and pyrotechnics on display here than in any half dozen James Cameron or Michael Bey 3D epics, and at probably less than a thousandth the price. The pay-off to the audience, though, is priceless. This is an hour and a half with a collection of truly likeable, if flawed, characters, as they deal with several unexpected events while trying to live the lives they thought they had, on the way to finding the lives they really needed.
We begin with a wonderful scene between Den Jorgensen (author Travis Michael Holder, “Dr. Sigmund Winston” in a series of internet films, and well-established stage actor) and gal-pal Junie Hannah (the amazing Deborah Shelton, ”Nip/Tuck”), and the chemistry between the two actors sets the tone for the rest that is to follow. I don’t know whether Holder and Shelton met on set, or have known each other for years, but here it truly feels like two veteran actors who have been through the wringer and around the block together, with volumes spoken in what is not said or in the friendly insults that are fired off in overlapping dialogue. This is important, because Holder’s script manages to give us a lot of exposition between these two without it feeling like it is. We become voyeurs in an intimate, non-PC, no limits conversation between two old friends, and are pulled into this world from word one.
This scene is important because we learn (no spoilers here) that Den is 1) a big time TV star, 2) has been in a relationship with a younger man for slightly less time than he’s been a big TV star, and said younger man is not a star-fucker, but loves him for whom he is, 3) has managed to keep his shit out of the tabloids, but has also been living a deeply closeted life in his Malibu Mansion with said younger man, 4) said younger man, Colin (John Brotherton, ”One Life to Live”), a rather successful dancer in his own right, was in an accident that has left him in a wheelchair and, although physical therapy will likely restore his ability to walk (though not to dance), he has fallen into depression and refused to do anything to help himself.
It’s quite a lot of heavy lifting for a very funny gal pal scene to cover, but it does the job. Then, after we meet Colin and see that he and Den truly are in love, what seems to be the titular “surprise, surprise” comes into the picture as sixteen year-old David Blythman, Jr., aka David Jorgensen (the amazing Luke Eberl, Letters from Iwo Jima), arrives at Den’s door to announce that he is, in fact, Den’s son. While a somewhat mind-blowing revelation, Den does the math in his head, and realizes it isn’t entirely outside the realm of possibility. He has his mind further blown when David’s grandmother Winnie (Mary Jo Catlett Sponge Bob Square Pants), enters to inform him that the studio has always known about his relationship with Colin, despite Den’s paranoid fears that his character would have been killed off of the show the second any of the suits got wind of his real life.
That’s the set up for the pitch, and the rest of the story just knocks it out of the park. A good analogy: Surprise, Surprise is like walking into a swimming pool from the baby steps. Everything seems shallow and glib at first, but the further you go, the deeper you get. By the end of it all, the characters have grown, revealed themselves to each other and us, and have learned. Perhaps the biggest surprise in this regard is Eberl’s David, who starts out as an annoying, self-centered, mumbly-mouthed, know-it-all sixteen year-old (we cheer when his grandma smacks him one early on) and ends things on a strong, wonderful note of emotional and personal revelation and vulnerability that is quite earned and not arbitrary at all.
Eberl’s performance and transition is amazing, but that’s true of all of the characters here. Shelton does an amazing job as Junie Hannah, a former sex kitten when that was the only option for Hollywood starlets, who reveals that her apparent shallowness is more a career move than a reality, and Mary Jo Catlett – whom I guarantee you will recognize on sight even if you don’t know her name – really needs to be the next Betty White in about fifteen years. Hollywood needs more loveable grandma types, and Catlett is nothing if not totally loveable.
As for our main couple, Brotherton’s Colin does make us believe completely that he is truly in love with Den, while Holder’s Den makes us believe that Colin could be completely in love with him. And, further credit to Holder – he absolutely resists the “I wrote this, I’m the star” vanity angle. If anything, Den is the (cough) straight man to the rest of the cast – everyone else gets their huge emotional moment, while he does not. If anything, it feels like his leading role is underwritten – not necessarily a bad thing. (Although, to be fair, I’ve seen him on the boards in LA, and the man can act his ass off.)
Finally, for the obligatory man-candy, Jesse C. Boyd (The Craving) pops up in a towel for a major plot device but, ultimately, while Surprise, Surprise does have gay characters in it, I would hardly characterize it as a gay film. To do so would be to pigeonhole it as something it’s not. What it is is this: an involving, engaging, entertaining, wonderful story of a handful of people learning the definition of the word “family”, and learning to move beyond their own expectations of how they have defined themselves. It’s also a multi-generational story, with someone to relate to for everyone from 15 to 80. All of that, plus it ends on a scene of emotional dynamite that I dare you not to have strong feelings during.
Surprise, Surprise is now available on DVD.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…
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