After narrowly surviving the franchise non-starter "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," I'm sure director Brad Silberling was primed to tackle a production that didn't require a year's worth of blood, sweat, and tears.
The Actor (Morgan Freeman), with a penchant for co-starring in Ashley Judd thrillers, is hoping to conduct some character research at a desolate and unpleasant grocery store in the outskirts of Los Angeles. There he meets Scarlet (Paz Vega), a bored, Spanish cashier who has lost her patience with customers and her personal life. Finding himself overwhelmed with curiosity, The Actor puts his gifts to work making over Scarlet's world, encouraging her to reach higher in life, while also finding his performing inspiration, returning to him to a place he feared was long lost.
In the general scheme of filmdom, "10 Items or Less" is the littlest slice of a movie that can be made. Essentially, Silberling has written a one-act play, pitting two complete opposites on a journey to self-confidence and inspiration, capturing this dynamic with a miniature budget, everyday locations, and a host of called-in acting favors.
"10 Items" doesn't establish itself on a grand scale; it snuggles up to the viewer and draws you into this unusual coupling. Silberling has a history of romanticizing everything he touches ("City of Angels," "Moonlight Mile"), but he stands back for this picture, taking a more observational stance with these actors, only nudging the spirit of the film along with some cutesy music montages and effective, but indulgent, euphoric reaction shots from Freeman. Running just a scant 70 minutes, the picture doesn't have time to excavate personal demons, but the fluffy air of friendship and growth is gracious enough to provide a fulfilling sit.
It's Morgan Freeman's performance that glues "10 Items" together. Poking fun at himself (the running gag about Ashley Judd is a pretty observant one) while also pouncing on the chance to play comedy, Freeman feels alive here for the first time in a very long time. You can see the merriment in his eyes playing this role, embracing the character's curiosity with the working-class crowd after years in his actorly ivory tower. Exploring the low prices of Target, the limited menu imagination of Arby's, and the lasting power of his craft by way of "The Yearling," The Actor may not be Freeman's most challenging piece of work to date, but it surely gives the performer a chance to smile. For Freeman, this is almost revelatory.
Burdened a smidge by her thick Spanish accent, Paz Vega holds up her side of the relationship just as well as Freeman. Vega is an expressive performer, and while she isn't given the lighter role, the actress conveys Scarlet's frustrations extremely well, while aptly providing Freeman an excuse to delight in her presence.
"10 Items or Less" doesn't insist much more than the average indie exercise, but it's nicely made by Silberling, and if you've lost faith in Morgan Freeman, this is the film to restore it.
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