In 10 Words or Less
Slow down and appreciate the beauty in life
Loves: Visually inventive films, Clerks
Likes: Tasteful nudity, short films
Dislikes: Service industry jobs
Hates: Awful strippers
As I sat down to watch Cashback, I started to think about all the good films that have come from taking a short film and expanding on it. La Jetee became 12 Monkeys, Peluca begat Napoleon Dynamite, while Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade gave up a few words to be adapted into Sling Blade. I'm sure there have to be a few bad movies that were adapted from shorts (Joe's Apartment jumps to mind), but it seems like a short is a good starting point, considering you have at least something of a proven concept. Same goes for Cashback, though it goes one step further and actually includes the whole short inside the feature film, instead of just stretching it out to feature length.
That Cashback manages to take the utterly fascinating 18-minute short and fold it into a solid overall feature, without repeating itself or seeming like a shoehorned bit of material, is possibly the most impressive thing about it. That's saying something, as this is one of the most original films I've seen in some time, using a creative visual concept and making it part of the story instead of a gimmick. Admittedly, the story, which focuses on Ben, an art student suffering from insomnia, thanks to a bad break-up, isn't the most novel to hit screens, but the way it's told makes this an entertaining flick. After all, it's the first time I've seen the Everyguy hero freeze time and strip the women around him, in order to draw them in the nude.
Though Ben's late-night shenanigans (and the copious nudity that accompanies them) will always be the most memorable part of this film, thus earning the starring role on the poster and cover, the movie is no one-trick pony. As he spends his sleepless nights working at a grocery store, using his imagination to help the hours pass, a blossoming relationship with fellow clerk Sharon helps him cope with his sleep disorder. More exploration of Ben's frozen world would have been appreciated, especially when it's teased at one point that Ben might not be alone there. But instead we get a pair of Dumb & Dumber deli workers and an egomaniacal boss, as the film slips into a rather traditional boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-goes-after-girl plotline.
As traditional as the film becomes as it moves forward, the movie's transitions from the present to the past keep it energized, as the flashbacks reveal much about Ben's view of beauty and explain his obsessions. Director Sean Ellis shows a solid ability to pick and choose his spots where he lets loose with the camera, resulting in some truly gorgeous moments, while other times he lets the actors do their thing. For a film that's such an artistic vision, it's a bit odd that there are many diversions into pure comedy, including a predictable and pointless soccer game and a silly "getting ready" montage. These don't work as well as the quicker gags, like the running joke about Ben's horny pal and his luck with the ladies, and, as a result, the film loses a bit of the sense of artistry it had, but it's all still done so well, that these sins are forgivable.
The cast, unlikely to be recognizable to American audiences, is uniformly good, starting with Sean Biggerstaff (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) as Ben. A young man with soulful eyes and the kind of laconic, world-weary delivery that makes sense for the character, he allows the audience to believe that he hasn't slept in weeks, while not overselling the idea. He's perfectly matched in Emilia Fox's Sharon, who shares the same sense of oppressed hope, and whose understated beauty makes Ben's artistic interest in her all the more real (and makes his fantasy vision of her a sight to behold.) The rest of the cast does well with what are essentially one-note parts, though Michael Dixon and Michael Lambourne, as the aforementioned goofball co-workers, are unavoidably noticeable.
It's tempting to label this film as uneven, as it tries to do a few too many disparate things, but I'd rather give it an A for effort than dismiss its indulgences, as the beautiful scenes and intriguing filmmaking will stick with you long after the sillier scenes pass by. The somewhat heavy-handed message about appreciating the world around you and the time you have doesn't distract thankfully, and results in an ending that's appropriate for what's akin to a modern-day fairy tale.
The Bottom Line
Cashback is undeniably the work of an artist, with a look, feel and story that embraces the concept of beauty in a big bear hug and refuses to let go til the very end. While there are sections that are uneven, as the film tries to balance the pathos and the comedy, the stunning visuals and engaging storyline make this an entertaining and smart concoction, likely to appeal most to fans of directors like David Fincher and Tom Twyker, though the blue-collar laughs could work for the Clerks crowd just as easily. The ample nudity won't hurt it's appeal. If you want to see the traditional good guy romantic comedy told with over-the-top style, this is a great choice.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.