Reviewed at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
It’s impossible not to measure “The Freebie,” actress Katie Aselton‘s directorial debut, against last year’s Sundance success “Humpday.” The two films share a marriage — Aselton, who also stars as Annie, is the wife of filmmaker and “Humpday” lead Mark Duplass, who serves as executive producer. They also share a cast member, an editor, a cinematographer, an improvised, rough-around-the-edges feel, and a goofy-sexy hook with underlying seriousness.
It’s that seriousness that trips up “The Freebie.” “Humpday” used its premise — a pair of thirty-something straight men make a booze-fueled pact to film a porno/performance art video of the two of them having sex — to get at certain more complicated truths, or Matt Zoller Seitz put it, “The film’s true subject is ‘normalcy’: what it means, whether there even is such a thing, and most of all, the terror of being thought too normal — too ordinary, too typical.” “The Freebie,” on the other hand, is about exactly what it sets out to be, which is the dry spell a thirtysomething couple (Aselton and Dax Shepard, who plays Darren, and who acquits himself well in the dramatic role) tries to get out of by giving each other the go-ahead for one extramarital hookup.
The sunny, laid-back L.A. lives being lived by the film’s indisputably adult characters seem to have kept them in a kind of stasis, where they’re only now dealing with things you’d think should have surfaced years ago. When Annie and Darren talk about how they can totally do this because they’re honest and love and trust each other so much, it sounds genuine and familiar, but also like the kind of naively nonconformist thing a pair of college students would say before ending up seriously hurting each other’s feelings. This goes beyond Annie and Darren’s experiment — at a dinner party, one of their friends notices another’s wife isn’t drinking and that she never turns down a glass of wine. “Should we tell them?” her husband asks. What could it be, everyone else at the table demands, apparently genuinely mystified. Yes, what reason would a grown woman in a long-term relationship have for taking, say, a nine-month break from alcohol? And this party is for someone’s 36th birthday.
I’m just a little weary of the conservative core that lurks beneath the scruffy surface of a lot of recent R-rated comedies and indie dramedies — behind the requisite unrelenting candor, dick jokes and druggy grandparents, plenty of them come down to espousing the same old values of family, community, fidelity. There’s nothing new on that front in “The Freebie,” in which the couple in question do not, of course, find the answer to their problems is a one-night dip into open marriage. I was rooting for that. Hell, I was rooting for them to decide that no longer wanting to sleep with each other was just fine, that they didn’t need it. Now that, strange as it may be, would be edgy.
“The Freebie” does not yet have U.S. distribution.