“10 Items or Less” represents the indie persona of writer/director Brad Silberling, versus the studio side of himself which has produced such films as “Casper,” “City of Angels,” and “Moonlight Mile.” And on the basis of this, which is what he must have been building towards in his career, every Hollywood filmmaker should make at least one truly indie film in their career, free from the meddling minds of executives and other marketing types, in order for audiences to sense their unclouded personalities.
He has taken Morgan Freeman and Paz Vega, which in Hollywood terms is considered an “unconventional pairing” and made it even more unconventional. And even his title, aside from making note of the express lane in a small supermarket, represents both of their characters, one (Freeman) a Hollywood actor four years absent from the industry, who clearly has had more than 10 items in his life, and the other, Scarlet, (Vega), who has not known any other job except that barren L.A. supermarket she works in, which includes the likes of her no-good ex-husband (who’s not an actual “ex,” since she can’t afford the divorce) and his aptly trailer-trash girlfriend (Anne Dudek), who merely stations herself two lanes down from Scarlet’s 10 items or less lane to do a full day’s work of very little labor.
The actor with no name, credited only as “Him” at the end, walks into that supermarket after being dropped off by a PA for a production company that’s soon to make a movie he has not yet committed to. However, he is intent on only spending an hour there, getting a feel for playing the character, a night manager at a supermarket. He wears a leather jacket that exemplifies his years of making enough money in Hollywood to perhaps even buy the world, but he’s settled for a mansion in Brentwood. Because of his four years away, he doesn’t act like he’s surrounded with people (agents, entourages, etc.) that he can rely on whenever his ego itches. He walks around the supermarket, taking in everything, soon finding a video of a film he co-starred in with Ashley Judd and doesn’t like the fact that a customer can get his tape and another for $12.99, or perhaps one that’s not even his. Being marked down is never a good feeling.
He is introduced to Scarlet when he tries to peel off the discount sticker and a voice booms throughout the supermarket, instructing someone to put something down, and he thinks it’s him the voice is commanding. Silberling’s visual attention, which is made atmospheric also by the co-efforts of director of photography Phedon Papamichael and editor Michael Kahn, shows us that this isn’t the case, but it leads to the spark of a friendship that gradually grows in the seemingly short minutes this film has. It is done in such an appreciative way, much like a wine connoisseur doesn’t waste a good wine. She’s frustrated with the fact that her barely active co-worker/husband’s girlfriend doesn’t do anything at her checkout lane, he’s fascinated by how quickly she can ring up items, usually without even taking them out of a customer’s basket.
But, good person that she is, she’s stymied in her attempt to leave the supermarket for a job interview she has, because the guy who dropped the actor off hasn’t come back to pick him up and he’s even forgotten his house phone number because a security issue the week before caused him to change the number. And in Hollywood, a Jewish holiday makes everyone Jewish, according to him, so even his agent can’t be reached.
A production like “10 Items or Less” is the type where you know there were more people working on this than just Silberling, Freeman, and Vega, but the feeling given is so unpretentious, so smallish as if to seem that Silberling was the only one who took his camera into a Target and filmed the duo shopping, and it’s the first time in any movie where a Target is made new again with the actor’s fascination at the very low prices, considering that the shirt he wears cost a hundred bucks. He excitedly tells Scarlet that he has to let his people know about this place.
Freeman’s actor never stops looking at things from the perspective of an actor either preparing for a part or advising people on what he notices about the parts they play. Scarlet’s way out of the supermarket is at a job interview for a secretarial position at what we hear is a production company. She’s of course worried about it because she’s never been away from the checkout lanes, never removed from the sight of Lee, the stocky, hunched-over manager (Kumar Pallana in a brief role that brings much pleasure in an already pleasurable film), never without being within eyesight of the aisles. Confidence is all she needs, he claims, and a new outfit to replace her torn shirt, which triggers the trip to Target.
Freeman and Vega’s time together doesn’t smack of a “Will they or won’t they fall in love/f**k” scenario, as it’s just enough that they come into each others lives just when they each need someone. Had Scarlet not been in the supermarket at the time of the actor’s visit, it’s clear that the actor would have simply lived his life as he always has, with $100 shirts, with not quite being ready to commit to a film, with the worry of whether he’ll be remembered and how much. But with Scarlet, he’s given more perspective in his life than just what he’s been all these years, perhaps able to see more than how a person acts in their lives and what they can do to improve that role. He can see the person just as they are and besides his innate talent for engaging people, he can be even more engaged by what he takes in, simply by what’s already there, no need for immediate improvements.
And that is never more true in such scenes at a car wash and especially outside an Arby’s where “ten items or less” lists are exchanged, such as what the actor loves most about his life. And moments like those are what makes this worth discovering, and it can be discovered by each person who watches it, no matter how many reviews are read, no matter how many friends see it and recommend it. It’s just that kind of movie.