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December 5, 2006 |

By Miscellaneous | Film | December 5, 2006 |

10 Items or Less is the sort of film that the American independent cinema used to produce on a fairly regular basis but has now gone out of fashion. It’s small, intimate, and unpretentious, with no irony and very little cynicism. Though in some ways its plot is never entirely convincing, it is, on its own limited terms, nearly perfect.

So spare and uncomplicated is the plot that it’s almost Aristotelian: Only the unity of place is violated, and that just barely. Set almost entirely in the grim industrial wasteland of Carson, California, 10 Items explores what happens when two people from very different worlds meet and spend a few hours together enjoying each other’s company, forming a connection that is both genuine and temporary. Morgan Freeman plays an unnamed, quasi-famous Hollywood actor who is best known for Double Down, a thriller in which he co-starred with Ashley Judd. (The pairing is a joke at Freeman’s expense: He and Judd headlined the mediocre thrillers Kiss the Girls and High Crimes.) He hasn’t worked in four years and is considering a role in a small, independent film because, as he explains to the film crew’s driver (who is the director’s cousin), the project is so far under Hollywood’s radar that no one will even notice it unless it’s a surprise hit, so he has nothing to lose.

The role he’s considering is that of a manager in a grocery store, so the driver drops him off at Archie’s Ranch Market, a garish, rundown market in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood, to observe its denizens. There, amid the mournful, piped-in sounds of a dying mariachi band, he meets Scarlet (Paz Vega), a willful express-lane cashier, and studies her knack for dealing with both the antiquated cash register and the recalcitrant customers. Scarlet has been consigned to the express lane by the store’s manager, who gave the plum register — the one no one ever visits — to Lorraine, the employee he’s currently screwing, but it’s clear from the outset that Scarlet deserves more. Vega, a Spanish actress best known to American audiences as Flor Moreno in Spanglish, is a disturbingly beautiful woman with the face of a more architectonic Winona Ryder and an accent so lilting and euphonious that we can almost forgive that half the time her English pronunciation is completely unintelligible. Whether or not he can understand what she’s saying, Scarlet’s smart, commanding presence and self-confidence are more than enough to win the actor’s admiration.

When her shift ends and she prepares to leave the store, Freeman’s character manipulates the situation so that he has an opportunity to observe her further. He follows her to the home of her estranged husband and then through a series of steps preparing for an important job interview, ultimately becoming a sort of life coach, offering Hollywood solutions to every problem. Freeman’s character sees everything in movie terms, calling Scarlet’s upcoming job interview an audition and suggesting that they “run the scene” to help her prepare, insisting that her ripped blouse is merely an opportunity for “a wardrobe change.” His solutions are a bit simplistic, but there’s still something here that’s appealing. However banal, the idea that simply looking at situations that are difficult or intimidating and embracing their challenges by changing the game seems pretty healthy and useful. The film’s writer/director, Brad Silberling, has done a lot of TV and only a few features, of which I’ve only seen A Series of Unfortunate Events, so I can make only the roughest assessment of his talent, but he displays a humanism and goodwill toward his characters that helps us over most of the rough spots in his script. And his idiosyncratic yet effective musical selections — everything from Cyprus Hill’s “Latin Thugs” to Paul Simon’s “Duncan” — support the film’s mood in effective, often unexpected ways.

It’s worth seeing the movie just to watch Freeman cut loose and enjoy himself, particularly after some of the stolid dramatic roles and demeaning comic roles we’ve seen him take on in recent years. He’s having fun here — both with the character and with his own screen persona, as when he listens to a book-on-tape read by another black actor with a rich, mellifluous voice and explains how his cadences are all wrong — and his fun is infectious.

His character is in some ways a parody of Hollywood privilege, of the disconnect with everyday life that social conservatives decry and George Clooney embraces, but he is at the same time so openhearted, so responsive and kind to his fans, that his insulation from plebian reality seems almost a kind of grace. He may not understand much about how the working classes actually live, but he’s inquisitive and possessed of a warm, generous spirit. And the movie, for better and for worse, is the same on both counts.

Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]


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10 Items or Less / Jeremy C. Fox

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