The Freebie is the kind of movie that surprises you with its boldness, and then disappoints you with its timidity. It deals in matters of monogamous intimacy with a frankness and honesty that is downright refreshing in the current cinema, independent or otherwise, but then gets itself all hung up in conventional conflicts and fake-outs. It builds up a tremendous amount of power and goodwill in its first two acts, and then, unfortunately, chips a good chunk of it away.
Director Katie Aselton stars as Annie, who is in an affectionate and practical, if somewhat passionately stagnant, marriage to Darren (Dax Shepard). They pride themselves on being completely honest with each other (and make fun of their couple friends who aren't), but it's still painful for Annie to admit to him that, yes, "Our sex life isn't exactly... what it once was... or what it could be." One night, as they're lying in bed, they have one of those long, wandering conversations where hypotheticals are floated and weighed, and they come up with an idea: they could take a "night off" from their commitment, give each other a free pass to step out for a one-time, one-nighter. Who knows, maybe it'll put a little extra kick into their love life.
Aselton and Shepard delve into some tricky, tricky waters here; this is frank, candid, and frequently funny stuff, particularly that long, searching night of chit-chat that becomes "the plan", in which they walk it back from a concept to a thing they're gonna do. Once the premise is established, the film takes a bold structural leap--it jumps from the discussion and decision to the morning after, Darren waiting anxiously, Annie doing the walk of shame back to their house. Once she returns, and the awkwardness ensues, the timeline then jumps back to just after they've decided to take the leap. That little flash-forward, and the chronology play that follows, is smart--it drains (much of) the suspense, so that we can focus on the emotional underpinnings of the tale.
At its best, The Freebie is reminiscent of Monogamy, another recent indie about the struggles of long-term relationships in the face of temptation. (It shares that film's low-key boho aesthetic as well, particularly in an early dinner party scene in which a proclamation begins "You may have been reading my blog, or not..." with just the right amount of ironic detachment.) But its flirtation with the "open relationship" reminded me, to some degree, of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, whose couples also fancy themselves perhaps more sophisticated than they really are. Annie and Darren consider themselves to be all about the honesty, and declare that the key to their success, but as soon as they make this call, the barriers go up. "Rules" are put in place about how little they want to know about these encounters, and the resulting insecurities and paranoia threaten to skink their ship.
Stars Aselton and Shepard are equally matched and negotiate the turns of the story with ease--they have a casual, believable intimacy early in the film, and press through the rough, bare emotional content later on. The way they beat each other up with silence after "the night" is effective and chilling--there's a scene where they clean up and put away dishes following a dinner party that's like a sustained act of emotional terrorism. But the scenes where they freeze each other out are more convincing--and less predictable--than when they finally have it out. Viewers who have been taken in by the breezy candor and emotional depths of the picture may find themselves resisting the direction it takes in the last fifteen minutes or so, as the story takes a turn that feels like a cop-out, and a key character is pushed to a reaction that feels cheap and dishonest. For that matter, what we find out about both characters--both how they act in those final moments, and what we discover about their recent past--bears the earmarks of a picture that is afraid of where it has ended up, and feels the need to back away slowly.
Much like last spring's Chloe, The Freebie's willingness to examine post-nuptial sexuality at a level more sophisticated than your average episode of Everybody Loves Raymond is refreshing. But like that film, which stumbled into Cinemax-thriller tropes in its third act, The Freebie finds itself dancing with notions that it ultimately doesn't have the complexity to handle. They're skirting some real and fascinating stuff here, and when they look that stuff in the face, the film is disarming and compelling. But it ends up defaulting to a standard and frankly easy morality play.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.