Brad Silberling's "10 Items or Less" takes its title from the express checkout lane at the grocery store, and refers more particularly here to the aisle manned by Spanish actress Paz Vega as Scarlet in a working-class L.A. neighborhood. To this locale, Morgan Freeman--as himself, or someone like him--is somewhat randomly drawn in his research for a supermarket manager role in a "little indie thing." So it comes as no surprise that the movie often contents itself with initially clever but increasingly wearying meta-references to the big star's decision to slum it in Indiewood: Freeman tells the production runner such a move into "nicely under the radar" fare would be a safe bet for him career-wise--even though, as he adamantly reminds the kid, he hasn't yet committed to the part.
But this (that is, his part in "10 Items or Less") is a character Freeman does well to take on: Seemingly conceived to deliberately combat the actor's typecasting as a wise soul playing second fiddle to a white male or female (alluded to by the often marked-down video copy of a fictional feature called "Double Down," frequently spotted featuring an image of him alongside perennial real-life co-star Ashley Judd), he gets to show off a hammy, sexy side not often (ever?) seen. And he looks to be having such a lark; he casts a mildly infectious glow onto the otherwise lackluster proceedings.
Stranded by his driver, the movie star gets Scarlet to agree to give him a ride back to posh Brentwood--so long as he tags along for an interview; she's applying for a secretarial position. What ensues is both recognizable and yet a departure from the usual cross-cultural cinematic mash-ups: One teaches the other to fully embrace life, of course, but in a curious reversal, the salt-of-the-earth woman learns to go for the gusto from the made-it man rather than the other way around. Her desire for upward mobility, and a smattering of details strewn throughout the film (we know we're nearing Freeman's 'hood because we see a Starbucks), emphasize the economic nature of their differences rather than the expected ethnic or national ones, an acknowledgment fascinating insomuch as the subject of class in America tends to get displaced by race.
But cutesy bonding in Target is as far as the exploration goes, as "10 Items or Less" otherwise toes the generic line and heads off deeper implications. As with his bigger-budgeted fare--Silberling's resume includes "City of Angels" and "Moonlight Mile"--the director just keeps his project from careening headfirst into fathomable depths of dreck, via a clean style; that is until the final reel when he typically loses all sense of restraint and indulges in the expected cheese-out. You can see it coming from a mile away when Freeman first puts the question to Scarlet--ten items or less, what do you treasure most in life? --but that doesn't mitigate the sheer soppiness when the latter finally concedes, "this." As in, the moment the two strangers now share. All the worse, since it counteracts a quality Freeman earlier includes in his top ten: "Strong endings."
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York's Film Forum.]