"WE LOVE YOU, SALLY CARMICHAEL!" — 3 stars — Paula Marshall, Elizabeth Tulloch, Jack McBrayer, Christopher Gorham, Sebastian Roché; PG (mild thematic elements and language); in general release
If a lousy book brings you genuine joy, is it still a lousy book? That's the question that runs through the heart of "We Love You, Sally Carmichael!," a new comedy about a writer who gets asked to critique his own dubious work.
Christopher Gorham plays Simon Hayes, a novelist leading a double life. As Simon, he's just successful enough to be recognized by the local bookstore owner Tess (Elizabeth Tulloch). But as Sally Carmichael — his pen name — he's the wildly successful author of the Siren series, a young adult romance about a young woman and her beloved merman.
Simon has worked hard to keep his identity secret — the world thinks Carmichael is a reclusive Mormon housewife — but the Siren series is about to be made into a film, and his publishers (led by "30 Rock's" Jack McBrayer) have threatened a lawsuit if he refuses to meet with movie star Perry Quinn (Sebastian Roché), the vainglorious actor who is up for the merman role, despite being a decade older than the character in the book.
But Simon's identity troubles extend beyond logistics. Protected by his Carmichael pen name, he is free to admit that the Siren novels are a formulaic hack job, and when Tess asks him to share his opinions in her tiny literary newspaper — unaware that he is the Siren author — Simon inadvertently makes a name for himself as the foremost critic of his own work.
The plot is further complicated by his blooming relationship with Tess, whose preteen daughter Andie (Andie Nibley) is a massive fan of the series.
At first glance, it would be easy to mistake "Sally Carmichael" as a simple jab at the young adult novel genre, and of course "Twilight" in particular. But even if the members of Team Edward and Team Jacob are initially repulsed, they might find a sweeter message hiding behind the surface narrative about secret identities and romantic pratfalls.
"Sally Carmichael" is less a critique of "Twilight" and more an examination of that irreconcilable gulf between critics and fans. One of its best strengths is that it is able to acknowledge the points of the critics while demonstrating that a book or a movie or a song doesn't have to be an artistic masterpiece to make a connection with an audience.
The sweetness that comes from this theme, as well as in some tender scenes between Tess and Andie, are actually more effective than the scenes that lean on comedy. "Sally Carmichael's" organic laughs are much more genuine than the ones it asks for.
Gorham makes for a solid everyman as the weary Simon, and Tulloch — who sci-fi fans will recognize from TV's "Grimm" — brings emotional power with her performance. "Sally Carmichael's" supporting MVPs are Roché, whose campy wingman role with Simon almost feels underused, and Nibley, who may be the true heart of the film.
Directed by Gorham, and written by Daryn "Thermwise" Tufts, "We Love You, Sally Carmichael!" comes from the heart of "Twilight" country, shot in Utah, and local audiences will recognize plenty of onscreen locations from the Gallivan Center to Pioneer Book in Provo. But in spite of its Utah-specific references, Gorham's message about identity and fandom should resonate outside of the Beehive State.
"We Love You, Sally Carmichael" is rated PG for mild thematic elements and language; running time: 90 minutes.