The Reeler


November 30, 2006

10 Items or Less

Morgan Freeman's vanity project 10 clicks or less from the Internet bargain bin

Day-and-date distribution became a reality when Steven Soderbergh's criminally undervalued Bubble premiered in theaters, on DVD and via cable TV's HDNet on the same cold day this past January. This week, Morgan Freeman takes a similar commercial leap of faith with his new Intel-backed venture Clickstar, which will promote original films for online download shortly after their theatrical release. It's another somewhat fascinating experiment in cinema's uneasy transition to digital everything, with unknown potential for cutting down on piracy and making a few bucks off emerging formats. Technology, however, is only as vital as its content, and Clickstar's inaugural title, 10 Items or Less, is a cloyingly forced micro-budget comedy that tries (and fails) to capture The Station Agent's compassionate and mildly melancholic quirkiness. Though it clocks in at a merciful 82 minutes, the wait for those who eventually download the feature may end up being “the good part.”

Freeman headlines as a washed-up version of himself (his character's name is listed only as "Him"), a Hollywood actor who hasn't worked in four years and is waffling over accepting a comeback part in an upcoming indie. While researching the role as a supermarket manager, Freeman finds himself the subject of Dubious Plot Device No. 1, stranded by a goofy production intern at a grocery store deep in the industrial heart of outer Los Angeles. Enter the luscious and underprivileged Paz Vega (practically speaking Spanglish again), a no-bullshit employee who works in the titular check-out line, perpetually unhappy with her job, coworkers, customers, ex-husband, existence, etc.. Recognizing Freeman from his role alongside Ashley Judd in Double Down, a fictional thriller found in every bargain-VHS rack that becomes the film's recurring and only half-decent joke, Vega is first frosty, as per the formula, and then warms to the actor's need to observe her every bar-code swipe.

Enter Dubious Plot Device No. 2, in which Freeman must hitch a ride with Vega and become her after-work inspiration (you know the magic movie mentor drill: calculated pep talks; proactive good deeds that wind up not just improving the underdog's life, but teaching the teacher a little something to get his life in order), because he A) forgot his cell phone, B) somehow forgot his home telephone number and C) can't call anyone else because he only knows media types who have left early for a Jewish holiday. If that's what it takes to move past Freeman mimicking the gimpy manager (Wes Anderson regular Kumar Pallana, exploited to the hilt for wacky foreigner laughs), the first of many overlong, mindless montages, then a change of scenery is just one thankful step closer to the credits.

Wearing his trademark old-guy-trying-to-look-younger earrings (see also: Harrison Ford), Freeman is ostensibly satirizing A-list vanity, but his unimpeachable behavior as the encouraging do-gooder to Vega's hapless waif suggests the film is nothing more than a self-indulgent vanity project. When the improbable duo heads into a familiar red department store to buy her an outfit for a job interview (because that’s what big-time actors do in their spare time), Freeman smiles from here to Brentwood: "This is amazing!" Vega glares at him: "This is Target." Freeman’s clueless, wide-eyed vibe made sense when it appeared in the form of fallen angel Bruno Ganz experiencing coffee and cigarettes for the first time in Wings of Desire -- a disturbingly ironic coincidence, as 10 Items or Less director Brad Silberling is also the culprit behind that film's terrible Hollywood knock-off, City of Angels.

It's probably wrong to feel towering contempt for a movie this slight, but a conscience as charitable as that belonging to Freeman's unrealistic “Him” won't let me allow others to waste hard-earned cash on this drek. Especially not when it will end up on the discount downloadables page (the Web version of Double Down’s bargain bin) soon enough.

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