Infidelity, in either temptation or its actualized form, has always offered up rich dramatic terrain, because in addition to being about sex (which immediately piques the interest of at least half of the population), it's also all wrapped up in betrayal and insecurity. But as the nature of modern marriage has evolved — it's now much less about providing a base of financial security for women, and more about actual shared values, notions of family and a vision for moving forward together — so too have the manner in which some movies approach the topic of romantic cheating. If couples are cognizant of the differences between men and women, and allowed to have that honest conversation, then that's but a stone's throw away from a conversation in which certain extracurricular flings or activities are allowed, or pre-approved.
All of which brings us to multi-hyphenate Katie Aselton's The Freebie, which bowed at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. A spare, almost enervated character sketch, the movie centers on Darren (Dax Shepard) and Annie (Aselton, above), who from the outside seem to have a solid relationship, and still enjoy each other's company. Unfortunately, they can't remember the last time they had sex. When a dinner party conversation leads to a later discussion about the state of their love life, and when an attempted bikini seduction leads to a crossword puzzle race instead of some horizontal action, the pair begins to flirt with an idea for a way to spice things up. The deal they strike: one (calendar-fixed) night of freedom, no strings attached and no questions asked.
Though it has at its core a provocative premise, The Freebie is in certain ways a kind of chaste treatment of the notion that monogamy is a fairly awkward (and unnatural?) state when the haze of lust has faded, and there are no children involved. The film was workshopped at the Sundance Institute, and it's no coincidence that it's executive produced by one of the Duplass brothers (Baghead, The Puffy Chair), reigning kings of the so-called mumblecore movement. Even though they strike upon this radical experiment, its characters are reticent, cuddly-smoochy PDA-types, and they in essence lean back rather than forward, no matter what choices the story foists upon them.
This works well for a bit, establishing a certain intrigue as it relates to who exactly these characters are, and why they find themselves in such a rut. Shepard, who heretofore has specialized in more out-there comedic characters, channels a bit of Owen Wilson's penchant for cud-chewing conversational ellipticism, and Aselton is equally subdued. Some of the dialogue here is quietly smart, for how it locates what the characters are avoiding saying to one another, and the laughs the movie proffers exist for the most part entirely outside of itself, in our judgments of the characters' earnest declarations ("The way we love each other is so far beyond whether we have sex every night").
It's a disappointment, then, that The Freebie doesn't take this at-odds tension — the foisting of a hot-and-heavy premise on a couple of characters who have started to look through rather than at or into one another — and ultimately do something with it, in terms of sparking a deeper analysis of their current state of being. The manner in which Aselton constructs her film — its intercut, did he/did she? structure, which vacillates between the couple first agreeing to the deal and the beginning stages of them acting out their trysts — is interesting, but she chooses the wrong wind-up for her third act. The big emotional argument to which The Freebie builds is inherently less interesting than what causes that outburst — the offshoot reasons for Darren and Annie's individual and collective unhappiness, either in a continuing, latent insecurity or serial sexual unfulfillment. Aselton's failure to recognize that makes The Freebie's climax both empty drama ("You slut, I can't believe you did that!") and something of an emotional-psychological cheat. With neither empty titillation, complete feel-good resolution, nor an honest accounting of what triggered this foray into "on the side" fulfillment, the film comes across — despite the quiet rhythms of its scene-to-scene successes — as a watered-down exercise in gender-play sociology. (Phase 4, R, 77 minutes)