SIFF Review: The Freebie

2010 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Rated R
78 minutes

****

At the, ahem… core… of Mumblecore are characters who end up in extreme scenarios born from drunken conversations. In “The Freebie,” a married couple, following a pep talk to a newly single friend about boning as many people as possible, decide that the perfect way to rekindle their waning love life is to take a night off and screw other people.

Annie and Darren have one of those relationships in which they can be completely honest with one another without hurting each other. They’re an educated, cerebral couple. So cerebral that a long discussion about not being able to remember the last time they had sex ends, not in sex, but in a crossword puzzle race. That’s why when they both admit that they sometimes fantasize about sleeping with other people, their hypothetical conversation about “taking a night off” from their marriage actually seems feasible. After all, they’re both on the same page. They love each other and, as long as they are in agreement, it’s not cheating. They can have sex with someone else and come back to each other fulfilled and better people. They truly believe that as long as they think it through, they can rise above emotion. Annie and Darren are obviously forgetting their Dostoevsky. A certain young man named Raskolikov thought the same thing and he spent about 400 pages paying the price.

Of course everyone that they tell about this mad scheme knows where this is heading. Everyone in the audience knows where this is heading. But despite a few conversations that play like a game of chicken, they both find themselves getting dolled up on the night in question.

“The Freebie” is directed by and starring the First Lady of Mumblecore, Katie Aselton (she’s married to Mark of the Brothers Duplass). She does a fine job striking out on her own in the genre. Based off of her six-page outline, the actors all improvise their scenes, thus lending the film a very realistic, almost voyeuristic tone.

Most surprising is how well Dax Shepard fares in the role of Darren. His characters often come off as smug douche bags. Here, he tones down the smugness playing a thoughtful, albeit foolish, character. There are one or two moments in which his reactions seem to betray Darren’s personality. But for the most part, he is very believable and even, dare I say it, heartfelt.

The supporting cast also does well playing Annie and Darren’s nearest and dearest. Sean Nelson is particularly fantastic at being off-the-cuff clever. Known nationally as “That guy from Harvey Danger” and in my home town of Seattle as an indie actor, writer and Man About Town, he easily carried Lynn Shelton’s 2008 film “My Effortless Brilliance.” His brief moments in “The Freebie” are some of the best in the film and also provide a welcome bit of comic relief.

Like all Mumblecore, “The Freebie” is about thinking people’s problems. That’s probably the reason that many people are turned off by the genre. But the reason I like it, and the reason I liked this film in particular, is because though the characters over-analyze everything, they still react to drama the same way anybody would. They are still incapable of rising above the trappings of human emotion. Annie and Darren think they’ve solved their marital problems through careful reasoning but all they probably really need to do is have sex with each other. Perhaps man is not “meant to be monogamous,” but there’s a reason that most couples agree, or at least pretend to agree to sleep with only each other. Even with exhaustive ground rules in play, the alternative is far too messy. I wonder how many couples will go home after watching this movie and bone just to prove a point.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

 

SIFF Review: Some Days Are Better Than Others

2010 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
93 minutes

***

I’m willing to bet cash money that writer/director Matt McCormick is a Miranda July fan. There is so much in “Some Days Are Better Than Others” that is reminiscent of her brilliant 2005 film “Me and You and Everyone We Know”. It’s impossible to ignore the uncanny similarities. Lonely characters plod through their mundane lives looking for beauty and meaning. One character drives around an old man. One character makes performance art videos wherein she interviews herself and gives brutally honest answers about her fragile emotional state. Indeed it’s so similar that it almost feels like a remake, albeit a poor one. The plot plays out like a reverse version of “Me and You…”; only “Some Days…” lacks a couple of key elements that made July’s film so wonderful. Namely: humor and performance.

“Some Days Are Better Than Others” tells the vaguely intertwining stories of several residents of misty Portland, Oregon. Eli is an aimless temp who takes truly odd jobs (like counting the milk at grocery stores) whilst driving around with his step-grandfather, an eccentric inventor fixated on getting his experimental film recognized. Katrina works at an animal shelter and is obsessed with the notion of becoming a reality TV star. An insecure introvert, who wears her heart on her sleeve, she seems like an unlikely candidate for such a shameless, exposed medium. Camille, a sorter at a donation center, is even more socially crippled, interacting with other people only when absolutely necessary. When she finds an urn among the donated items, she becomes preoccupied with finding the owner of the little girl’s ashes contained therein.

There’s something to be said for hiring amateur actors in order to lend some realism to a film. But it only works if the dialog flows like natural conversation. When someone stumbles over philosophical lines it really draws attention to the fact that these aren’t their words, but the words of the screenwriter. It’s difficult to be moved by a film when you’re constantly being taken out of it. I don’t know if James Mercer (lead singer of The Shins) and Carrie Brownstein (lead singer/guitarist of Sleater-Kinney) get better partway through the film or if one just gets used to their stilted line readings. But they certainly never get good. Renee Roman Nose seems sweet and earnest but it’s almost painful watching her act. Her performance brings to mind the awkwardness of the non-professional cast of Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble.” It’s not pretty.

McCormick’s script does attempt a few light moments and some of them aren’t complete failures. Benjamin Farmer is amusing as a brash supervisor at one of Eli’s temp jobs. But other jokes fall flat. A scene in which Katrina inadvertently finds herself at a seminar scam goes for the easy, obvious laugh. And it’s not particularly funny.

Not happy with just having his characters say how they feel, or letting Portland’s gloomy backdrop exemplify their mind-set, McCormick also throws in a few bonus moments of compulsory symbolism. The camera lingers for ages on a street lamp at dawn. Apropos of nothing, a sequence of shots of boarded up houses plays like a project from the first week of film school. A couple of unnecessary dream sequences redundantly illustrate Eli and Katrina’s respective anxieties.

On Bruce McCulloch’s comedy album “Shame Based Man,” he has a sketch in which someone calls into a radio show with the advice that all the lonely people in the world should “just pair up.” The reason this is funny is because it’s totally unrealistic. People are happier when they have other people, but finding that other person who can fulfill you isn’t as easy as just meeting someone else who is lonely. It works in July’s film because her two main characters have chemistry. Even so, their pairing is difficult. That’s because life is difficult and people are complex. But McCormick seems think it’s the answer for Katrina and Eli. His entire story is so obviously implying this “easy” solution.

Still, McCormick shows promise as a filmmaker. There are some good ideas here. Let’s just say some parts are better than others. But I definitely liked it better when it was called “Me and You and Everyone We Know”.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).