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Friday, July 6, 2012

10 ITEMS OR LESS -- movie review by porfle

I love Morgan Freeman.  That is, I love his acting and his movie persona.  I don't know what he's like in real life--for all I know, he may be the reincarnation of Vlad the Impaler and feast upon barbecued babies three times a day.  But I'll watch a Morgan Freeman movie anytime.  Even an aimless, somewhat boring comedy, which is what 10 ITEMS OR LESS (2006) seems to be for much of its running time.  Nevertheless, I'm giving it a fairly positive rating, and if you can make it all the way to the end of this review, you'll see why.

Morgan Freeman plays a washed-up actor known only as "Him" (people keep recognizing him from his old movies and saying, "Hey! You're...HIM!") who hopes to begin a comeback by starring in a low-grade independent film project.  A gabby doofus who is a gofer for the project drives him to a grocery store, where he is to do research for his role as a store manager.  The gofer drops him off in the parking lot, promises to pick him up in an hour, and drives away, never to be seen again. 

Inside, the store is practically empty except for four or five customers who are constantly being haranged by a young Spanish woman named Scarlet (Paz Vega) who runs the "10 items or less" checkout.  This is where the movie gets its name, so it's a good thing she didn't clean the restrooms or it might have been called "Don't Forget To Flush." 

Scarlet yells at the customers who display dubious behavior over the P.A. system and berates them if they bring her more than ten items to check out.  She also hates and berates the skank who runs the other checkout (Anne Dudek in the role of "Other Checker") because she gets to sit on her ass all day since she's banging the manager, who happens to be Scarlet's weaselly ex-husband. 

Him is instantly fascinated by Scarlet because she can count how many items are in a basket faster than Rain Man, and because she seems so charmingly hostile.  When it's time for him to leave and the gofer fails to show up, he is unable to do simple things like call someone to come get him, because he is a movie star.  So Scarlet offers to drive him home, although she has to go to a job interview first.  She hopes to get a job as an office manager, and Him, who likens the job interview to a movie audition, which is something with which he actually has some functioning experience, is suddenly delighted with the prospect of helping her land the role.

"Costuming" is important, so they go to a department store to buy her a new blouse.  Him displays a childlike fascination for, among other things, the fact that the T-shirts don't cost $100 like they do in Movie Star Land.  The camera follows Him around while he gazes in wonder at garment fixtures and chats with people (he's a "people person.")  This is a bit like when someone wanders around shooting home video of various things for hours and then forces you watch it because they don't understand how soul-crushingly boring it is, and you want to kill them.  But it's also somewhat endearing to see Morgan Freeman taking a stab at playing such a lighthearted character.

They stop off at a car wash to wash Scarlet's car, because first impressions are important in an audition, and thus commences what is designed to be a humorous musical interlude.  As the car enters the stall, a sprightly salsa song sashays onto the soundtrack while we watch a montage of images: Scarlet puts on her new blouse in the bathroom, Him wanders around the gift shop and sniffs a car deodorizer; Scarlet applies makeup, Him watches a tender moment from THE YEARLING on the waiting room TV; Scarlett puts on lipstick, Him gaily helps the attendants wipe off some cars and they present him with a cap for being such a good helper.  I left out a few other things that are shown, because I'm only mentioning the more exciting ones.

Before pushing off again, Scarlet and Him sit in the car and rehearse for her job interview.  Assuming the role of interviewer, he fires off a bunch of probing questions at her and she gets frustrated.  Intuitively, he comes to the conclusion that she has already given up on herself, and that even at her young age, life has already made her feel as old and hopeless as he did on his last birthday. 

Watching this, I realized that the movie had come to a dead stop, had ceased trying to be funny-cute, and, for the first time, had become really interesting.  Morgan Freeman wasn't piddling around anymore.  He was acting.  With his quiet, sage voice and air of humane empathy, he had suddenly managed to turn both Him and Scarlet into human beings worth caring for, if only for a moment.  Morgan Freeman is just that damn good, in spite of himself.  And then, the moment's over and the movie gets boring again.

They eat at Arby's and belch at each other, and then sit on her car hood overlooking the bay and discuss the "10 items or less" that they love and hate most about life.  Then they drive around singing a song about her upcoming job interview, which is starting to seem like it must have been  scheduled for next week.  The song goes:  "Oh, please sit do you do...this job's for me...the rest is poo."  This is repeated three or four times, God help us.  Then she teaches Him a Spanish song, and he asks her what the words that they just sang meant, and she slowly translates them for him, line by line, and I begin to think, "Please, let a train crash into them.  Please."

Finally, they make it to the job interview.  I'm not going to tell you how it turns out, because if I have to sit through all the boring parts of this movie to find out how the job interview turns out, then so do you.  Two nice things happen, though.  When Scarlet is nervously walking toward the front door for what may be the most important moment of her life so far, we can see how proud Him is of her and how much he has grown to care about her in such a short time.  The other nice thing is the part where Him is sitting in the waiting room, and he and the male receptionist (Jim Parsons as "Male Receptionist") have a funny conversation.  That's right--funny!  Woo-hoo!

Finally, Scarlet drives Him home.  They drive and drive, as Paul Simon sings about how his father was a fisherman.  Driving, driving...and then, something else funny happens that actually made me laugh.  Wow!  Two for two!  Seriously, it's an awesome gag.  Beers all around.

After that, the movie comes to its final scene, and I'm not going to tell you what happens here, either.  Because everything that's come before, as boring as much of it may have been, builds up to a simple, heartfelt moment between Scarlet and Him that is emotionally resonant and left me genuinely moved.  And what seemed for most of its running time to be a really lame comedy ultimately revealed itself, in its final moments, as a portrait of the deep attachment that can form between two strangers in a single day if they connect on a basic human level.  Morgan Freeman pulls out some of that real acting again, Paz Vega proves that she's a fine actress as well, and writer-director Brad Silberling turns out to be not such a bad filmmaker after all. 

At first I thought I'd never watch this movie again, but now I'm not so sure--if the slow parts that came before can lead up to such a heartwarming ending, then maybe they're worth sitting through, and maybe even worth a little reevaluating after the fact.  Earlier, while listing the 10 ITEMS OR LESS that he loves in life, Him names one that is particularly apt in this case:  a "strong finish."

Buy it at


Anonymous said...

Excellent review Porfle! Bravo.
Well structured. A little slow in the middle. Almost boring. But the promise of your usual big finish kept me going to my assured reward.

(seriously though it was Ebert-worthy. And I mean that in the highest way.)

*clap clap clap*


Porfle Popnecker said...

Thanks for the exceedingly nice comment! It's not every day I hear the word "Ebert-worthy"!