At the, ahem… core… of Mumblecore are characters who end up in extreme scenarios born from drunken conversations. In “The Freebie,” a married couple, following a pep talk to a newly single friend about boning as many people as possible, decide that the perfect way to rekindle their waning love life is to take a night off and screw other people.
Annie and Darren have one of those relationships in which they can be completely honest with one another without hurting each other. They’re an educated, cerebral couple. So cerebral that a long discussion about not being able to remember the last time they had sex ends, not in sex, but in a crossword puzzle race. That’s why when they both admit that they sometimes fantasize about sleeping with other people, their hypothetical conversation about “taking a night off” from their marriage actually seems feasible. After all, they’re both on the same page. They love each other and, as long as they are in agreement, it’s not cheating. They can have sex with someone else and come back to each other fulfilled and better people. They truly believe that as long as they think it through, they can rise above emotion. Annie and Darren are obviously forgetting their Dostoevsky. A certain young man named Raskolikov thought the same thing and he spent about 400 pages paying the price.
Of course everyone that they tell about this mad scheme knows where this is heading. Everyone in the audience knows where this is heading. But despite a few conversations that play like a game of chicken, they both find themselves getting dolled up on the night in question.
“The Freebie” is directed by and starring the First Lady of Mumblecore, Katie Aselton (she’s married to Mark of the Brothers Duplass). She does a fine job striking out on her own in the genre. Based off of her six-page outline, the actors all improvise their scenes, thus lending the film a very realistic, almost voyeuristic tone.
Most surprising is how well Dax Shepard fares in the role of Darren. His characters often come off as smug douche bags. Here, he tones down the smugness playing a thoughtful, albeit foolish, character. There are one or two moments in which his reactions seem to betray Darren’s personality. But for the most part, he is very believable and even, dare I say it, heartfelt.
The supporting cast also does well playing Annie and Darren’s nearest and dearest. Sean Nelson is particularly fantastic at being off-the-cuff clever. Known nationally as “That guy from Harvey Danger” and in my home town of Seattle as an indie actor, writer and Man About Town, he easily carried Lynn Shelton’s 2008 film “My Effortless Brilliance.” His brief moments in “The Freebie” are some of the best in the film and also provide a welcome bit of comic relief.
Like all Mumblecore, “The Freebie” is about thinking people’s problems. That’s probably the reason that many people are turned off by the genre. But the reason I like it, and the reason I liked this film in particular, is because though the characters over-analyze everything, they still react to drama the same way anybody would. They are still incapable of rising above the trappings of human emotion. Annie and Darren think they’ve solved their marital problems through careful reasoning but all they probably really need to do is have sex with each other. Perhaps man is not “meant to be monogamous,” but there’s a reason that most couples agree, or at least pretend to agree to sleep with only each other. Even with exhaustive ground rules in play, the alternative is far too messy. I wonder how many couples will go home after watching this movie and bone just to prove a point.