The idea of a couple voluntarily deciding to seek out their respective one-night stands is not exactly new. Nearly every married character in an Ernst Lubitsch comedy seemed to accept infidelity as a part of the deal, and the premise was most recently explored in the fifth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Now comes The Freebie, which sets aside any broader context associated with the scenario and puts the boundaries of monogamy to the test with mathematical scrutiny. The result is less of a movie than a sketch—but a perceptive one.
Katie Aselton directs and stars as Annie, the giddy but sexually frustrated wife of Darren (Parenthood star Dax Shepard). When the couple’s joint sevenyear-itch sets in, they get to talking about allowing each other a single evening of sexual freedom. After a bit of hesitant bedroom chatter, they agree to the stunt. But the tension of the unknown hangs in the air.
Aselton is best remembered as the female counterpoint to real-life hubby Mark Duplass in The Puffy Chair (which he co-directed with brother Jay), and here she guides the action in the tradition of Duplass’ earlier works, using shaky-cam techniques and improvised dialogue to situate her airtight concept in a naturalistic setting. This off-the-cuff maneuver generally leads to dicey territory, but Shepard and Aselton generate enough playful chemistry together to make the setup feel convincing enough. That’s the first reason why The Freebie doesn’t have the obvious failings that so many ill-conceived relationship-centered indies sport. But its inventiveness mainly emerges from the manner in which Aselton maneuvers the credibility of the performances.
With the plot embedded in the title, The Freebie initially comes across as a quaint romcom. Despite its airy exterior, however, Aselton takes a dark turn that moves it away from easy gags and into a more nuanced take on human behavior. The prolonged sequence in which Annie and Darren go their separate ways to seduce strangers in the night plays out with a fair amount of suspense: Who will score first?
The fallout is predictably difficult to watch—devolving, as I suppose it must, into a shouting match of hurt lovers. Aselton wisely leaves a fair amount of ambiguity in the scene, although the abrupt end suggests a missing third act. It feels too sudden, even if that’s the point. With its abrupt cut to black, Aselton portrays her characters’ relationship as a constant work in progress, but all good stories must come to an end.
Directed by Katie Aselton
Runtime: 80 min.