Deep in the outskirts of industrial Los Angeles, an unnamed actor (Morgan Freeman) wonders if the time has come to break a four-year hiatus of doubt and indecision and get back in the game. Not that his destination, the set of a tiny indie by “a director so young he hasn’t been born yet,” is a return to the salad days, when the actor starred in the likes of Double Down, a onetime blockbuster now heavily discounted wherever dusty VHS tapes go forever unsold. But who knows? Maybe something “nicely under the radar” is just the thing to get the juices flowing. His driver nods in agreement as they career through Carson in a van the color of processed guacamole. “You mean like a cinematic blowjob, right?”
Exactly, if we’re talking about the kind that licks the tip, ignores the balls, and wouldn’t dream of swallowing. The only person getting off on 10 Items or Less is director Brad Silberling, who wrote the script before heading into the hardcore Hollywood gangbang of
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Far be it from me to begrudge the guy some R&R, but next time I recommend catharsis in a beachfront bungalow instead of dragging us through a low-rent vanity project that should have been called Brad Silberling’s A Series of Egregious Episodes.
Clocking in at a scant, interminable 82 minutes, 10 Items or Less tags along with the actor as he slums his way through a working-class wonderland, prepping for his upcoming role. Abandoned at Archie’s Ranch Market, the Latino megamart serving as “ground zero” for the mysterious indie, he is instantly and improbably captivated by Scarlet (Paz Vega), the saucy Spanish checkout girl. Circumstances (a/k/a screenplay schematics) leave him in the lurch and her in need of advice, so they clamber into a crappy hatchback and head off in the direction of Life Lessons.
First stop, Target, where Scarlet shops for a blouse to make the perfect impression at a big job interview. Meanwhile, beguiled by the low, low prices and commoner charm, the actor scoops up tube socks, marvels at a mop promotion, and doles out compliments in the ladies’ department. Burdened by the unlikely enthusiasms of a preposterous character, Freeman shoulders such antics as well as he can, straining to keep pro in amateur hour. There may well be decent jokes left to score off the shopworn scenario of an actor overpreparing his part—a running obsession with the fabric content of wage slave uniforms not being one of them.
10 Items or Less goes from oblivious to oblivion when it pulls into the perkiest car wash since Car Wash. Polishing rag in hand and Ritmo Latino bumping on the soundtrack, Freeman frolics in solidarity with a crew of blissed-out immigrants. Muchas gracias, kindly celebrity! Class consciousness is hardly to be expected from the dude who brought Casper to the big screen, and if nothing else, 10 Items or Less is a case study in cluelessness.
As light starts to drain from the smog-filled sky and this dim little picture putters on fumes, Silberling gears up for the big scene. With her new duds, clean car, and Magic Negro in tow, Scarlet has everything she needs for her shot at success except . . . protein!—the most crucial of all, admonishes the actor, who learned that from no less an authority than his low-carb holiness the Dalai Lama. And so, fortified by huge slabs of Arby’s roast beef and dubious bonds of friendship, our gentle heroes climb a hill and bare their souls, taking turns to list 10 things or less they most love and hate about life, including “a good bowel movement.” Good for Silberling if he cleaned out his system; Lemony Snicket must’ve been tough on the gut. As for everyone else,
10 Items or Less adds up to zilch.