Brad Silberling’s “10 Items or Less” — unlike other indie films without a star like Morgan Freeman and technical masterminds as lenser Phedon Papamichael, editor Michael Kahn and post-production ace Andy Nelson — is more than a touch aware of how outside the studio zone it’s wandering. Interplay, though, between a jaunty Freeman as an unemployed movie star and the magnetic Paz Vega as a no-nonsense grocery store checker gives pic humanity and lift, sure to help for ThinkFilm’s planned launch in simultaneous theatrical and ancillary (including viewing option of Internet download) in either December or spring 2007.
Though there’s always praise for a movie that keeps things to an absolute minimum — except in the dialogue department — the fact that “10 Items” has a 72-minute playing time before credits (containing the seemingly obligatory outtake montage) only points to how slight it really is.
At the same time, the tale of an actor (identified in the credits only as “Him,” which may or may not imply Freeman himself) venturing to a lowly grocery mart in deepest Carson (south of Los Angeles) to research his slated role in an indie “project” suggests a fable about Hollywood trying to rediscover its lost soul.
As he’s being driven to the market in the first of several extended dialogue scenes, Him is far from committing to the low-budget project, even though his last action pic was four years ago. Unlike the film on display, the thesp character Him is hardly caught up in the romance of “going indie” and finding his would-be roots.
Rather, by the time he steps inside Archie’s Ranch Market in Carson, which caters to a Spanish-language clientele, Him is simply an actor sincere about finding the essence of his character by studying the everyday behavior of folks in the store.
Silberling and Papamichael appear similarly serious about their staging, with many scenes and set pieces (particularly exteriors) drawing upon the influence of the great Los Angeles photo artist, John Humble, and his eye-filling views of the city’s industrial and working-class zones. Inside, the market feels like a place time forgot, with nearly everyone operating in slo-mo.
Except, that is, for Scarlet (Vega), who operates her “10 items or less” line with stern efficiency, even though she tells the curious Him that such a post is “where checkers come to die.” Unlike slutty fellow checker Lorraine (Anne Dudek), who’s currently sleeping with her nearly ex-husband Bobby (Bobby Cannavale), Scarlet is all-business, and can even ring up items just by looking at them in a shopping basket.
The quiet joke here is that the actual store manager — Him means to study him, down to the way he wears his shirt — isn’t around, so the actor has to make do with what he can observe. A quite strained premise has Him having to rely on Scarlet to drive him back home to Brentwood, which gives them plenty of time to get to know each other.
After a physical encounter with Bobby and Lorraine at the mobile home they once shared, Scarlet begins to get ready for a planned secretarial job interview, which Him uses as an opportunity for loads of pep talking. Along the way, he also demonstrates his talent as a people person, forever striking up conversation with strangers.
Inevitably, Him’s warmth melts Scarlet’s defensive chill, but neither Freeman nor Vega make this process seem calculated and pre-ordained, and both actors feel genuinely attached to the kind of roles that studio-based screenwriters have simply forgotten exist.
The movie can’t escape the fact that it’s awfully proud of being so independent, or at least that it serves as a nice holiday for big-timers to play in the indie sandbox. Silberling takes this one step further, getting in a little dig at the Hollywood scene he and Freeman are a part of by having one of Him’s past pics (“Double Dare,” co-starring Ashley Judd) in a video discount rack at the market.
Silberling shows his native Angeleno roots, shooting the city with geographic exactitude, down to how his characters get from working-class Carson to exclusive Brentwood. Papamichael’s cinematography embraces the city’s ugly side, and Kahn takes obvious pleasure in invoking a simple cutting style that doesn’t distract from the actors as they’re having a blast.
Despite repeated references to Diner’s Club, Target and Arby’s, among others, end credits proudly note that no product placement was arranged.