With a premise better suited to comedy than drama, The Freebie is more somber and less stimulating than expected, though anyone nearing the proverbial seven-year speed-bump in their marriage will feel queasiness mixed with boredom watching a man and a woman attempt to reignite their union by allowing each other a one one-night stand. Writer-director-costar Katie Aselton's talky piece has brevity to recommend it. And yet, paradoxically, lots more could and should be said--for the screen couple's sake if not the viewer's. Putting a damper on sexual healing, in or out of matrimony, amounts to throwing a wet blanket on headliner Dax Shepard and, thereby, the movie's earning potential.
Annie (Aselton) and Darren (Shepard) are thirtysomething Angelinos (the Silver Lake nabe, by the looks of it) whose marriage has hit an erotic dull patch. They can't remember the last time they had sex. Although emotionally committed and lovingly compatible, they get their kicks by seeing who can finish crossword puzzles first. A dinner party conversation triggers a frank examination of their relationship, during which Darren assures Annie he still finds her physically attractive and jokingly confesses to often getting "major snuggle boners." Following a string of more serious tête-à-têtes, their plan for sanctioned straying emerges. The ground rules are few and the logistical headaches are barely mentioned.
As somnolent as things are in the bedroom, Annie and Darren are extremely affectionate physically; they're often shown smooching and cuddling. Only about halfway through the movie does it become clear that Aselton is presenting certain scenes out of chronological order. To further keep us on our toes and demonstrate her cleverness, she chooses to be elliptical by omitting key parts of their negotiation, including who first floated the idea, as well as the extent of what transpires on the adulterous night in question. The effect is to trivialize without adding levity or originality. The film's tagline reads "a one night experiment in infidelity," and yet very little experimentation goes on in the story or in its presentation. There's not enough conflict, lightness or naughtiness. As best I could tell, the main problem with the marriage is that Annie and Darren spend way too much time together alone. Neither appears to have a job. And, with a biological child unlikely to materialize under the circumstances, what about a dog to break the monotony?
While more Humpday than Zack and Miri Make a Porno, The Freebie skimps on the sly observational humor of the former and (only somewhat mercifully) lacks Kevin Smith's brand of raunchy, discursive wit. If nothing else, the situation these two characters put themselves in should generate some cheap excitement. Shepard's charm (speaking of puppies) does bubble over occasionally, but the scenario is low on scintillation. The most electric moments are provided by the up-and-coming young actress Frankie Shaw, playing an eager barista.
Comparisons with Humpday, in which two heterosexual male friends dare to have sex with each other, extend beyond The Freebie's general concept. Executive producer Mark Duplass played one of the leads in Humpday and the movies share a cinematographer and an editor. Thanks to their respective talents, the shoestring production is slickly compact. Its twangy, ballad-filled score alone tags it as a Sundance Institute product, and it premiered at the Utah fest earlier this year.
In her effort to channel Lisa Cholodenko and Humpday helmer Lynn Shelton, Aselton has left out key ingredients, specifically the good, juicy parts that would make The Freebie fresh or revelatory. Straining to be insightful, sensitive and "real," she's concocted something borderline dreary. The only thing everyone on screen (or off) can agree upon is that Darren and Annie have come up with a stupid idea. When all is said and done (or not done), the movie boils down to one cliché: "There's no such thing as a free fuck."
Distributor: Phase 4 Films
Cast: Dax Shepard, Katie Aselton, Sean Nelson, Frankie Shaw, Ross Partridge and Bellamy Young
Director/Screenwriter: Katie Aselton
Producer: Adele Romanski
Rating: R for language and sexual content.
Running time: 80 min
Release date: September 17 NY, October 1 LA