The strain of love and marriage goes mumblecore in Katie Aselton's 'The Freebie," which takes a largely improvised peek at the struggle of fidelity. Though cursed with a clichéd shaky HD presentation, Aselton (who's married to co-producer/mumblecore maestro Mark Duplass) proves herself to be a formidable filmmaker with a keen eye for shame, making the picture something of a surprise, especially with its sense of marital realism.
Annie (Katie Aselton) and Darren (Dax Shepard) are a loving married couple stuck in a serious sexual rut. Despite their clear chemistry and fluid sense of communication, the two can't jumpstart their bedroom antics, leading Darren to suggest something drastic to reawaken their libidos. For one night only, Annie and Darren agree to take off and find a "freebie" sexual encounter to help refresh their passions, sticking to a rule that no information about the tryst will be shared between the couple thereafter. Of course, as the event commences, the pair find themselves conflicted when faced with a real opportunity to cheat, wrecking their once stable union.
"The Freebie" isn't an original idea, and the film has all the hallmarks of a heavily workshopped Sundance story that made the miracle leap to film. With low-tech cameras, wandering framing, improvised dialogue, and a backdrop of Los Angeles hipsterdom, "The Freebie" doesn't immediately establish itself as a film worth the viewing effort. The surface details of the picture promise something hackneyed and insufferable. Thankfully, Aselton doesn't go down without a fight.
Sticking to a deceptively simple plot for a blessedly appropriate runtime (75 minutes), the filmmaker captures the caution and overt sensitivity of marriage, depicting Annie and Darren as an affectionate couple able to discuss matters of the heart without fear of humiliation. The natural chemistry between Shepard and Aselton helps to summon a credible bond, but the subtle instances of behavior and routine make the picture feel lived-in, even with a cast often far too fixated on delivering eloquent verbal diarrhea. Annie and Darren appear like a genuine married couple looking to clear a common relationship roadblock with a radical idea, making the concept of the film less about melodrama and more about legitimate taboo curiosity.
Aselton keeps matters raw and stimulating, especially hesitant during the seduction sequences, pitting the twosome in situations where they could readily follow through on their mischievous dare. The performances reflect the trepidation and curiosity at hand, with Aselton imparting a palpable nervousness as Annie hits a local bar to bait her hook, while Darren finds eye-opening mojo with a willing barista. The moviemaking miracle is found in Shepard's performance, which is largely dramatic and therefore palatable. He summons interesting paranoia and deflection, showing vulnerability for the first time in his unlikely career. Bravo to Aselton for pulling anything of note out of this tedious actor.
The anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio) doesn't provide a welcome visual experience, due in part to the crummy HD cinematography that helps the picture to find immediacy, but at the cost of a professional look. Often resembling a glorified home movie, the image retains workable colors that bring out the natural splendor of the environments, also keeping skintones realistic. Black levels are strong during evening encounters, communicating a natural nightlife without much overt muddiness.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound mix retains the organic chaos of the dialogue exchanges, crisply tracking each character and their thoughts as they collide with a primarily frontal force. Scoring cues dance comfortably throughout the film, though true dimension is lost here to concentrate on the basics of performance.
No subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with Katie Aselton and Dax Shepard is exactly how one imagines a commentary would be with stars so comfortable with each other. Eternally playful, the twosome keep the jokes coming, jabbing each other with sarcastic barbs, while also keeping the technical information rolling along, pointing out the low-budget details of the film. It's interesting to note Shepard joined the picture a mere 18 hours before shooting commenced. Also fun is to hear audience reaction to the film's conclusion. It's an entertaining conversation.
"National Freebie Day" (1:51) corrals four faux public service announcements performed by Shepard and Aselton, used to promote the film.
A Photo Gallery (1:21) with 20 stills is offered.
And a Theatrical Trailer is included.
Obviously, the story ends up in a confessional standoff, pitting the couple against each other as the truth of their solo adventures threatens to be revealed. Aselton offers answers, but perhaps not the truth, leaving "The Freebie" in an interesting position of debate, exploring the shattered fragments of intimacy with a pleasing ambiguity, removing the pretentious urges of the piece to dissect the potentially horrifying reality.
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