“Cashback” ends with its hero, a dreamy art school student named Ben, telling the audience in voiceover, “Once upon a time, I wanted to know what love was. You just have to see that it’s wrapped in beauty and hidden away in between the seconds of your life. If you don’t stop for a minute, you might miss it.” Ben and maybe “Cashback” writer/director Sean Ellis has seen “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” so many times he’s begun claiming its insights as his own.
There are a few moments of truth in “Cashback,” but those, like that final farewell, are all cribbed from other movies and television shows. Ben’s idealized erotic fantasies, and its gallery finale, come straight out of Terry Zwigoff’s superior “Art School Confidential.” His time-wasting tomfoolery at his dead-end job reeks of Kevin Smith’s “Clerks.” Even his ability to stop time and rearrange the details of his life while everyone around him remains frozen isn’t original: anyone else remember Zack Morris’ use of the phrase “Time out!” on “Saved by the Bell”? Maybe Ellis didn’t mean to take these elements. Maybe he’s never seen “Art School Confidential” or “Clerks.” But that doesn’t make it any less unoriginal.
The one truly unique wrinkle on all this stuff isn’t something to be proud of either. A bad break-up leaves Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) crippled by unconquerable insomnia, leading him to start taking nightshifts at a local supermarket, where he passes the time, somewhat counter-intuitively, by literally stopping it for hours on end. Then he undresses the helpless female shoppers and sketches their naked bodies. Ellis presents this violation as the height of artistic beauty, with slow, graceful pans across the women’s bare breasts (though rarely over their blank, mannequin faces) and twinkling music that implies that Ben’s peeping is something pure rather than something skeezy. “Cashback” actually plays sexual assault for romance (it plays it for comedy later, too).
Do college students fantasize about women? Of course. Is that wrong? Not necessarily, though Ben’s might be, particularly if, as Ellis emphasizes throughout, he isn’t really fantasizing about undressing women but actually doing it, without their consent. That’s not beautiful that’s demeaning, not to mention illegal.
Ben is never presented as a sleazebag (not to mention a philosophical plagiarist). If Ellis disagrees with Ben, or finds his actions unsavory in any way, he never shows it. Instead he uses all of the technical skills at his command and this young filmmaker has plenty of them to valorize his behavior. Ben stole Ferris Bueller’s philosophy, but not his sense of humor or honor. Without those traits, he’s just a jerk and a perv.
“Cashback” opens in limited release on July 20th (official site).