What at first comes off like a prolonged drama-class exercise gradually develops into a mildly satisfying, out-of-left-field romp with “10 Items or Less,” an unassuming tale about unlikely kinship sprouting between two strangers over the course of a day.
Slight and wispy, it’s a film that could only work with the gracious presence of someone like Morgan Freeman, who delivers an amiably laid-back performance that makes great use of his mellifluous voice and pokes self-denigrating fun at his history of crime thrillers featuring Ashley Judd.
Freeman forges a terrific bond with co-star Paz Vega. The two come together like old, old souls picking up where they left off after a long time apart.
Writer-director Brad Silberling, whose films include “Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events” and “City of Angels,” takes a break from big Hollywood with this offbeat, intimate flick that’s more of a lark than a film.
Freeman plays a movie star listed in the credits only as “Him,” the character something of a riff on the actor himself (though in the film, Freeman hasn’t worked in four years and is scouting comeback projects; in reality, Freeman’s been as busy as ever, including his Academy Award-winning performance two years ago in “Million Dollar Baby”).
Considering a role as night manager at a low-end supermarket in an independent film, Freeman’s character heads out to a store in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson to research the part.
The sleepy, seedy market becomes a strange little bubble for a couple of hours as Freeman studies the customers and the workers, particularly cashier Scarlet (Vega), the spitfire who oversees the “10 Items or Less” checkout line.
A bit helpless in the way Hollywood stars often are when it comes to practical matters, Freeman winds up stranded at the market and prevails on Scarlet to help him get home.
The two meander through an afternoon of tiny adventures among car-wash workers, office employees where Scarlet has applied for a better job, and Scarlet’s low-down husband (Bobby Cannavale, in a small but spirited role).
Much of the film is stitched together from long, static sequences with few cuts, Freeman and Vega persevering through excessive patches of dialogue.
Short enough at barely more than 70 minutes, “10 Items or Less” is stretched by a good 10 minutes of lengthy, unnecessary outtakes during the closing credits. But the movie still feels padded, like a short film fattened up close to feature length with material that was better left out.
Still, it’s a sneaky little film, a quiet, happy-sad, thought-provoking conclusion creeping up and leaving viewers with something a bit more meaty to ponder than anything the story had promised earlier.
Like Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble” — which debuted simultaneously in theaters and on television and DVD earlier this year — “10 Items or Less” is a test case for alternative movie distribution. Two weeks after it debuts in theaters, “10 Items or Less” will be available for online purchase or rental from ClickStar (www.clickstarinc.com).
Given its short length and an uncomplicated style that could play well on small computer screens, “10 Items or Less” is a good trailblazer to gauge the public’s interest for new films piped in by the Web.