They’re young, good-looking, happily married, surrounded by friends and in fervent love with each other. But nevertheless, Darren (Dax Shepard) and Annie (Katie Aselton, who also wrote and directed) have succumbed to a particular variation of the seven-year itch: They can’t remember the last time they had sex. They’re great at cuddling and kissing, but when they try to make love, they wind up solving crossword puzzles in bed instead.
The couple’s dry patch is not a source of anxiety for either of them: “The way we love each other is so far beyond whether we have sex every night,” Annie observes. But they both agree that a bolt of freshness might jumpstart their libidos. “Sometimes I get freaked out about the notion that I’m never going to have sex with a different girl – ever – or see a new person naked ever again.”
The Freebie works hard at selling you on the notion that these two people are meant for each other, because the arrangement they come up with – each will have a one-night stand with a stranger, no questions asked – would otherwise strain credibility. Although the plan is horrible in concept, the film sells the illusion that these two smart, eloquent people really believe it might work.
Like Humpday and The Puffy Chair, The Freebie belongs to the mumblecore genre: The actors worked off a story treatment and largely improvised their dialogue, the camera is hand-held, and the lighting is naturalistic. But Aselton (who is married to Mark Duplass, one of mumblecore’s Godheads) gives the picture the precision and focus of a tightly scripted project. She and Shepard are wholly believable as the loving couple, even though the movie intentionally gives us practically no details about them outside their ongoing experiment. The intimacy of Aselton’s direction makes you feel like you’re eavesdropping on an actual marriage: You feel like jumping in there and trying to talk them out of an idea that is probably guaranteed to result in disaster.
But that realism also adds a layer of intrigue to The Freebie: You want to find out what will happen if Darren and Annie proceed with their arrangement. The Freebie isn’t intended to be an exploration of marriage and the ways couples work together to make their relationship work. The protagonists are unique individuals not meant to be representative of the viewer. Instead, the film is really a sly examination of the fragility of love. You feel invulnerable when you’re in the throes of it, but it requires a lot of tender care – and maybe even the occasional white lie – to keep alive.
Cast: Dax Shepard, Katie Aselton, Frankie Shaw, Ross Partridge.
Writer-director: Katie Aselton.
Producer: Adele Romanski.
A Phase 4 Films release. Running time: 80 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.