The Reeler


July 18, 2007


Cashback's inner Sundance comedy lost behind bathetic blather and aisle six T&A

There's no inherent reason for Cashback to suck. Sean Ellis' debut takes a supermarket as its promising setting; There are few enough movies devoted to examining the crappy, time-killing jobs taken by people in need of drinking money and distraction. (Clerks doesn't count; we're talking about characters with deferred ambitions, as opposed to none at all.)

It's not quite The Office, but the variables are the same: a petty tyrant of a boss who conceives of himself as admired and respected by the employees; low-stakes assignments with no threat of firing; the absolute irrelevance of customers to the daily proceedings. The supermarket here is a crawl space for the willfully underemployed, and fashion photographer Ellis lays it out as a mesmerizing hub of neon ceiling glow, an odd perpetual sunlight. Not quite the obsessively color-coordinated product shelves of Punch-Drunk Love, Cashback’s vision of the supermarket is closer to the real thing.

Unfortunately, Cashback is not a movie about a dead-end workplace, or the state of mind that comes with it, or anything else remotely interesting and unexplored. Instead, Cashback is the umpteenth story about a Very Sensitive Young Artist who happens to be a morose man-child infatuated with a mystically perfect woman. It's a perpetually irritating genre, one reputed to have died once Michel Gondry’s The Science Of Sleep re-imagined just such a twee hero as a potentially delusional schizophrenic.

Ellis has no such skepticism or compunction about his protagonist. Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) is an art-school student (of course) recently abandoned by girlfriend Suzy (Michelle Ryan). Suzy, naturally, is a hottie with sluttish tendencies who abandons Ben for no good reason and jealously tries to win him back when he finds someone cuter. Forget the rote misogyny though; Cashback gets really creepy when a depressed, insomniac Ben -- suddenly faced with an extra eight hours in his day -- gets a job at the local supermarket. There, he kills time by imagining freezing moments in time, then walking down the aisles, disrobing all the women and sketching them.

Because Cashback vacillates about Ben's ability to stop time -- a lame metaphor for learning to savor everyday beauty, but also apparently a literal power -- you could argue that Ben, in the grand tradition of bored men everywhere, is simply mentally undressing strangers. But honest T&A is sublimated in favor of lugubrious voice-over ramblings about "beauty" that play like a freshman's attempt to recapture the most blighted tendencies of the Romantic moment. "I've always wanted to be a painter," Ben drones. "Like many artists before me, the female form has always been a great source of fascination. I've always been in awe of the power they possess." This blather would be more convincing if Ben weren't shown lovingly striding up and down the aisle, undoing blouses, bras and skirts, then tucking them back in before restarting time (or, indeed, if all of Ben's unwitting beauties weren't of the blonde/big-tits persuasion). Sketching the women seems to be the least of his interests.

Cashback has an unconscionable running time of 102 minutes, and the seams in its expansion from a short film show whenever a time-padding flashback interrupts the flow of life in the supermarket. Much of this running time is taken up with unbelievably self-regarding text that will make you want to throw a heavy volume of Oscar Wilde at the boy and get him to admit he's just horny.

All of this heady contemplation is depicted with the greatest seriousness, however, encouraging us to think like love-lorn, self-pitying adolescents. Somewhere inside Cashback lurks a quirky Sundance comedy -- there's a hilarious recurring bit about a janitor who uses kung-fu moves to wield his mop, as well as some obligatory wacky co-workers -- and for once that would have been the preferable alternative to this endless, self-deceiving solipsism. Snarky copy editors everywhere will compose headline variations on the theme of "You'll want your 'Cashback' after this movie." And they will be right.

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