He (Morgan Freeman) is an actor --- who hasn't acted in a while. He's been ... taking some time? Off the radar? Avoiding gigs that seemed to be beneath him while the floor of other's expectations lowered bit by bit and day by day without him even knowing it? It's not clear to us; it may not be clear to him. He's headed to a grocery store to research a part -- talk to the manager, get a sense of life at an L.A. food mart -- but he's not exactly committed to the project yet. Then again, as he's being driven by a production assistant (Jonah Hill) who isn't sure of the route to the store, it's pretty clear the production isn't necessarily committed to him. ...
Brad Silberling's had one of those perverse, up-and-down careers that Hollywood seems to throw at people occasionally: Not up and down in terms of quality, but rather in terms of resources. Silberling came from TV to direct the big-screen version of Casper; then, he got the hot potato of remaking Wings of Desire for America with City of Angels. From that, it was the personal-and-overlooked drama Moonlight Mile, and then back up to money-maker territory with Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. After that film's miss at the box office (and the challenge of big expectations, off-set turmoil and Jim Carrey), you could pardon Silberling for wanting to take some time and make a slightly smaller-scale film. The good news is that there's no need to; 10 Items or Less may be light, and slight, but it's an unexpectedly winning delight.
The film takes its title from the sign marking the cashier's lane at the market ruled over by Scarlet (Paz Vega). He (and the film never names Freeman's character) first encounters her as a booming voice over the PA: "Put ... that ... down!" He thinks the voice is talking to him -- he's over in the video bargain bin, gazing at the cover of a VHS thriller featuring his picture alongside Ashley Judd, with his name obscured by the "2 for 12.99" tag. The voice is, in fact, berating a produce-squeezer who serially mangles fruits he never buys. Scarlet -- who never descends into chicka caricature despite her obviously Latina origins -- is following the career advice of Milton's Satan: If you're in Hell, might as well rule it with an iron fist. Got more than 10 items? You're cast out, to another cashier's line.
He talks to Scarlet, and gets a sense of supermarket life from her; later, when the production assistant who dropped him off fails to come get him, he gets a lift from her as well -- but she's not a taxi; she's got a few things to do, and he's along for her ride. And along the way, they talk. And talk. And talk. But between Freeman's charm and light grace (very few directors take advantage of Freeman's comedic skills, which is a pity -- he's got them to spare, once you get past the patrician face and the voice-of-God speaking tone) and Vega's sparkle and flare (which find a much better outlet here than they did in the simplistic, condescending Spanglish), we're hooked.
10 Items or Less is in the vein of Before Sunrise or My Dinner with Andre -- a film where all the seemingly-small elements of life (shopping, talking, eating) are just the doorway to the big picture, and two people talk and do and speak from well-crafted (but not precious) characters. 10 Items or Less isn't about big topics like war of religion or family, but the things it tackles along the way to Target and the car wash -- Who am I? What am I doing with my life? -- are brought to the screen with the kind of economy, skill and light elegance that charm and disarm you even as they conceal the real work that must have gone into the making of the film. No one here is working within their expected range, and that's a big part of why 10 Items or Less is worth -- pardon the phrase -- checking out.