Not Back Back
I want to have control over making films. I really do.
—Morgan Freeman, AP, 1 December 2006
The future of entertainment has arrived. Again. This week, it’s the release of 10 Items or Less in a limited number of theaters. On its face, this small, independently made, low budget concoction by Brad Silberling is not so unusual. Essentially a two-character study starring Morgan Freeman and Paz Vega, it’s the sort of teeny project that will be noticed by dutiful critics more than paying customers. But this film, like Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, is another effort by filmmakers to alter the ways consumers think about how they consume.
In a couple of weeks, on 15 December, 10 Items will also be released on Clickstar, a company founded by Freeman’s Revelations Entertainment and Intel in order to make small movies available to people who live outside New York and L.A.
“Small” would be the most apt word to describe 10 Items, which, as its title suggests, means to contain and concentrate its energy. That’s not to say this slight storyline doesn’t stretch out to comment—often slyly, sometimes overtly—on Hollywood’s business as usual. Freeman plays a character called “Him” in the credits, an actor who’s been there and done that several times over, and considering coming back (“Not back back,” he insists, “Not comeback back.” His most recent work includes, you learn in his first scene, the audio-book for Titanic, in stultifyingly sober intonation (“It’s not me,” he insists to a fan, who exults, “Modest motherfucker!”).
Him is prepping for a new role that he may or may not take, in a teeny movie made by unknown director. In this film, he’s supposed to play the manager of a teeny supermarket. As 10 Items begins, Him is being transported by an amiable PA (Jonah Hill) to his research site, Archie’s Ranch Market in Carson. Distracted and unfocused (he reports that he cannot remember his own phone number or remember what day it is), Him arrives at Archie’s and starts scoping, his slim jeans, black leather jacket and designer sunglass marking his difference from the locals, all immobiliized: the butcher sleeps on his counter, a checker (Anne Dudek) paints her toenails, and an elderly substitute manager (Kumar Pallana) shuffles from aisle to aisle, piling up grapefruits and restocking the toilet paper shelves.
Him is immediately taken by two items. First, he spots a DVD of one of his own films, Double Down, featuring a cover image of Freeman and Ashley Judd (it’s heartening to see he and Judd get this joke), and second, he spots Scarlet (Vega), a terrifically skilled checker at the speed lane, that is, the 10 items or less lane. Not only are her fingers lightning fast on the register, but she can suss out items still in the basket and knows all the prices by heart. She is super-checker. And she hates her job.
It’s easy to see why, even before Him plies her with questions, hoping to learn the secrets of her patience, the details of her character, the center of his upcoming role. Over the course of the day, they develop a friendship, comprised mainly of existential and exceedingly mundane bits of conversation. He’s impressed by her ballsy rage at her store manager and ex-lover, Bobby (Bobby Cannavale), now sleeping with the toenail-painting checker, and then takes up the task of coaching her for an “audition” (an interview for a secretarial job) and she agrees to drive him home to Brentwood in her yellow Gremlin.
Along the way, they encounter everyday folks, including a fan of Him (“I just loved Barbershop,” she gushes, to which he graciously responds, “So did I”) as well as the sorts of characters you might expect in a road movie limited to L.A.: Latino car-washers (who appreciate Claude Jarman’s discovery of the cherished baby deer in The Yearlings as much as Him does) and self-conscious fellow shoppers in Target, where Scarlet seeks an interview-appropriate interview outfit.
“I may not know my phone number,” Him says, “But I know people.” In another movie, this line might seem a riff on Freeman’s well known proclivity for playing wise narrators and even God, in Bruce Almighty. But here it’s something smaller and more compelling. He’s actually not very wise, and not a little lost. At once vulnerable and assured, he’s probably a too-neat foil for Scarlet’s self-protective toughness, but the Freeman and Vega push through the cliched set-up, and reveal, in the process, how characters can be found, formed, and respected in details. He and Scarlet, in another movie, might have found a way to spin their one day’s worth of intimacy into something more movie-like, but here, they keep it contained. 10 items or less.
The friendship is precious and contrived, but it’s also more compelling than those more contrived, less precious relationships offered in movies like Double Down. When Him decides to find “protein” for Scarlet at a fast food joint, the clerk in her Arby’s uniform looks perplexed by his request for a salad. Yes, he’s out of touch, and yes, Scarlet is warm and knowing. And yes, the rest of the planet can’t conceive their closeness. When at last they arrive in Brentwood, they pass Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman in their very nice car (“Hey! Big D!”, calls out Him, happy to see someone he recognizes, but also just joyful over his day full of discoveries. Drawing the most obvious conclusion, Perlman insists she’s going to tell Him’s wife.
Their parting is simple, much like their meeting. The film remains compressed, unspectacular, not especially insightful. If it’s not the future of movies, at least it’s an alternative to the usual mall fare.