The Punk'd prodigy takes another big-screen stab in The Freebie
This is doubtless no news to people who have TV reception, but I was disappointed to recently learn Dax Shepard is a regular on the NBC series Parenthood. Which is probably fine. But for a few minutes there it looked like he was going to become a movie star, and now that seems less immediately likely. Shepard is a fine example of talent deserving and getting breaks that boost them to the B list, but no further. (For proof life isn't fair thataway, observe that just because she lucked into Knocked Up -- a movie Shepard cameoed in, probably just for fun -- Katherine Heigl now gets movies built around her.)
Shepard is goofy, off-kilter'dly attractive, versatile, capable of being subtle (yet funny) in broad circumstances. He's shown those qualities in Without a Paddle(2004), Employee of the Month (2006), Baby Mama (2008), and When in Rome. He starred in three barely released to theaters: Mike Judge's Idiocracy(2006), which has a cult following; Bob "Mr. Show" Odenkirk's Let's Go to Prison (2006), which deserves one but has a reputation for world-class suckage instead; and Smother (2008) with Diane Keaton, which nobody defends. You see the problem: this is not a winning resume. Ergo, Shepard is back where he started (as Ashton Kutcher's Punk'd minion), on TV every week.
Except this week, when he's also at a theater near you in The Freebie. This is one of those actors-making-work projects that often turn out badly, because creating a movie to act in yourself is seldom an impetus from which greatness springs. Then again, writer-director-star Katie Aselton has spent years grooming for greatness — let us note in 1995 she snagged both Miss Maine Teen and the Jantzen Swimsuit Competition.
And in fact, The Freebie is pretty good. Not as good as Breaking Upwards, the somewhat similar New York City indie earlier this year. But among movies about long-term couples pondering Seeing Other People, it's up there. Annie (Aselton) and Darren (Shepard) have been married seven years, in Los Angeles yet, and still they hang out and have fun, just the two of them, all the time. (We never learn what either does for a living.) It has not escaped notice, however, that their sex life has receded to the point where there's no answer to "When did we last ... ?" because no one can remember. "I still get major boners for you," Darren reassures. "They're just, like, snuggle boners."
When at a dinner party Darren fervently urges a friend to sow all wild oats lest she meet Mr. Right and be doomed to never have sex with anyone else again, this low ebb becomes an issue. Should they do something about it? Perhaps by choosing a single, specific date on which they are free to (separately) do somebody else? Then return home refreshed, newly appreciative of and horny toward each other? Uh-huh.
This plan is presented so stealthily by Darren — and Shepard is one of those actors whose characters' thought processes leak haplessly through his googly eyes, rendering fibs and scheming hilarious — that by the time it's agreed on, Annie thinks it's her idea. Was there ever a romantic comedy in which mutual cheating turned out a good idea? It doesn't here, either. But getting to the "We've made a terrible, terrible mistake" part proves loose, amusing, credible, and briefly dead serious. (That serious bit proves that the ingratiating Shepard can do mirthless, ugly, and abusive when necessary.)
The Freebie was largely improvised. Aselton is used to such processes, being married to and sometimes cast by mumblecore leader Mark Duplass (2005'sThe Puffy Chair, Cyrus). Like many m-core movies, The Freebie — which otherwise feels too eventful to be classified as such — looks like crap. But Aselton gets a lot of other things right, from the regular-people L.A. milieu to perfect mixtape soundtrack choices by artists you've never heard of.
All the performances are excellent, the director herself playing naturalistic straight-woman to Shepard's toned-down yet still slightly surreal mix of sly, snarky, and spacey. File his career next to that of Steve Zahn, Seann William Scott, or David Arquette, to name other guys who may seldom or never get movies built around them. They should, though.
THE FREEBIE opens Fri/29 in Bay Area theaters.