By Christopher Bell | The Playlist January 11, 2011 at 11:45AM
Creeping quietly out of the wake of Sundance 2010 is Katie Aselton's "The Freebie," finally available on DVD for all of us regular peons to watch. The wait was worth it: taking a cue from the Duplass brothers' work ethic (Mark is her husband, fyi), Aselton has woven an ugly, disheartening, and (most importantly) real relationship story, complete with grounded performances and a fractured structure that mirrors the breakdown of their bond. It's one that deserves a watch despite the negative connotations it might evoke due to its association with the mumblecore movement and the usually... not our favorite... Dax Shepard. The filmmaker was kind enough to talk a little bit about her debut, explaining her reasoning for casting Shepard and her take on the subject matter.
One of the strangest aspects of "The Freebie" is the stunning performance of Shepard, to whom a colleague once referred as "comedy poison." That's a bit harsh, but there's absolutely nothing in the awful likes of "Without A Paddle" or "Let's Go To Prison" that would give anyone the idea that Shepard was a charming, deep presence. Maybe not even Katie, who admits that he kind of came out of nowhere. "We had another guy and it was not working. My husband called (Dax) at 9pm the night before and asked if he wanted to be in it, and he was like 'Yeah, sure!' So I was like, okay, it's going to be a broad comedy, but we'll go with it." Much like us, she was more than taken with his performance, saying "they just utilize him in a different way. They've always brought him in as the funny guy, because he is naturally funny but he also has a depth to him that he's never been asked to use before. After our first day of shooting, I went off and did a happy dance in another room." Hopefully other comedy directors will take note - this guy can carry a picture instead of being constantly relegated to the stooge roles he normally gets.
Most people in an unhappy, unhealthy yet "comfortable" partnership can attest to the messiness of a "break" or an "open" marriage, and know the consequences are disastrous through friends that have tried it. The filmmaker chalks it up to a holier-than-thou attitude. "In a perfect world it'd be nice if we could, but you really can't. It's total arrogance, thinking that you are so much better than your average couple who has to follow the rules of monogamy. I think maybe some could, but they're in a relationship that's different than most people have." There are plenty of ways for these characters to deal with their problem, but they opt to do something that they see as an "easy way out," even going so far as to tease each other about it before their set date.
Their conversations leading up to the freebie night are discomforting, mainly because of all the other things they talk about aside from their lack of a sex life. Aselton agrees, citing this as their core problem, coupled with the aforementioned egotism. "They pat their own back for being so honest with each other, except for the fact that they never talk about what their real problem is." She does note that bringing it up is a lot easier said than done. "A lot of times in relationships when sex is the issue, that's not what you're going to talk about because there's so much ego involved, people are very sensitive about it. It can easily go wrong or blow up in your face if you bring up the actual issue."
Anyone in this kind of relationship - even those that are otherwise healthy - are likely to find some of the movie unnerving, applying the situation to their own and shuddering at the thought of their own partner bringing up the subject of a "freebie." In a sense, one could view this movie as horror, and indeed the director finds any true-to-life relationship film to be such. "("The Freebie") is scary as shit, it deals with exploring those fantasies in your mind and dealing with the 'what-if,' it's terrifying. You don't want that conversation to come up, because it doesn't go away. Even if you say that it's a stupid idea, you still brought it up. I think it's a horror movie because relationships in general are kind of terrifying, they're not glossy and pretty like they're normally portrayed, it's not what we're used to seeing." They won't shock you with blood and gore, but both this and "Blue Valentine" will settle in a heavy pit in your chest and will linger for days.
"The Freebie" is now available on DVD.