The first warning that “The Freebie” might not be everything it could have been is the omission of a credited writer in the opening credits, and that lack of a structured storyline resonates throughout star and first time director Katie Aselton’s film.
What could be seen as a Mumblecore riff on the “Friends” Laminate List, “The Freebie” details the effects on a marriage of a mutually-agreed upon one night stand with strangers with as much depth as a half-hour sitcom from the mid-1990s. I understand the reasoning behind movies like “The Freebie” not scripting out their story. One comes up with an idea, one hires and lets the actors inhabit their characters and one lets the moments come from where the actors feel they should be going at that moment. That might approximate life, but that’s all it is, a rough calculation, and like many estimates, is way off the mark. We the viewers never feel Aselton and Dax Shepard, who plays her husband, are a real couple or even real people. They have a nice house in the hip Silverlake neighborhood in Los Angeles, but neither seems to have a job. They share that house, but they don’t seem to have any chemistry or connection with each other. They are supposedly seven years in to their marriage, and problems are hinted at in an early dinner scene with friends, but we don’t know much about this couple or what those problems are, outside of them not having sex all that often, before they thrust themselves in to this agreement.
So when the inevitable problems start to happen, the viewer cannot help but sit there and think to oneself “Well, what the hell did you think was going to happen?” And one character calls the other a whore, the only appropriate thought is “What the fuck, man? It was YOUR bright idea to begin with.” If Aselton has trouble finding the meat of her story, one only needs to look at her background to find the backbone of the problem. Aselton is one of the stars of the semi-scripted FX show “The League,” so she has some background in improv. But she doesn’t have the show’s creative team or cast with her here. One of her “League” co-stars, leading Mumblecore figure Mark Duplass, is an executive producer here, but that’s probably because Aselton and Duplass are married in real life. And maybe that is what “The Freebie” needed most of all to work, a real couple with real connections and real chemistry who can play off each other because they’ve done it every day for years. Which is not necessarily a knock against Mr. Shepard, who continues to show more maturity as an actor, but he probably wasn’t the best choice for this role. At this point in cinema history, there aren’t any stories that haven’t already been told a thousand times before. What makes new movies worth interest is the way they tell those stories, but there is nothing new or interesting about marriage problems and the ways to help fix them in “The Freebie.” About the only good thing that can be said about it is that, at 77 minutes from start to finish, it is mercifully short.Rating: D+