10 Items or Less; Candy

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Brad Silberling’s “10 Items Or Less” stars Morgan Freeman as an unemployed movie star who may or may not commit to appearing in a low-budget movie. His co-star is Paz Vega. She plays a feisty young supermarket checker he befriends while he’s researching his role. (She works on the 10-items-or-less lane.) Silberling’s film was also made on an extremely modest scale, and at one point its two characters exchange their personal 10-best-and-worst lists. In the spirit of the story, then, I’ll list what I like best about the film.

1. Morgan Freeman. 2. Paz Vega. 3. Paz Vega’s character. 4. Paz Vega’s performance. 5. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography...That doesn’t make ten, but Or Less is the best I can do. This isn’t a film that engenders strong feelings. It’s just a little indie that strives to be likable, and is less so than it might have been.

Normally Morgan Freeman doesn’t have to say a word to make us like him. Here, however, his reliable charms are accompanied by overtones of condescension. The main culprit is the nameless character he’s playing, a vain, insecure and presumably wealthy Hollywoodian who’s slumming as he toys with the notion of signing on to an indie film set in blue-collar Latino L.A.

That’s the basic joke, of course. Freeman’s alter ego is extremely alter – an actor of unspecified talent who hasn’t worked in four years, played by a wonderful actor who works constantly. But it’s an in-joke, and not a very good one, because the film’s odd, shaky tone gives the character no grounding in reality – not even the reality of this romantic fable, in which the actor, enchanted with the not-so-humble checker, becomes her avuncular guardian angel.

But…Paz Vega finally gets the screen time, and respect, that she deserved in “Spanglish” (which should have centered on her character of the Mexican maid), and this lovely actress makes the most of it. Her Latina checker, Scarlet, is outspoken and insecure in equal measure, but she blossoms under the actor’s loving spell. Paz Vega makes us believe the blossoming.

All movies about junkies in love are basically the same. “Candy” doesn’t re-invent the needle, but certainly sharpens it with fine performances by Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish.
Ledger plays Dan, a would-be poet. As the film’s narrator, he’s given to such highfalutin prose as “We had a lot going for us – we’d found the secret glue that held all things together.” As the Candy of the title, Abbie Cornish works the streets to support her two habits – heroin, and the dysfunctional Dan. When a landlord’s flunky comes to serve eviction papers, she tells him flatly, “We’re junkies. I’m a hooker. He’s hopeless.”

As good as the main performances are, they’re inevitably flatter than the language of the film’s narrator. I haven’t read the original novel, but movie voice-overs, no matter what their literary content, have far less impact than the images they accompany. (Ronald Reagan’s media advisors knew this when they pioneered the TV tactic of surrounding the president with upbeat images to outweigh downbeat news delivered by off-screen reporters.) What we hear in “Candy” is a lyrical account of self-delusion and self-destruction. What we see, though, is the same old same old – beautiful faces turning gaunt and haunted, strung-out hero and heroine, stupid parents, de-tox worse than tox, descent to and return from the depths.

“Candy” could be seen, I suppose, as a cautionary tale; take this as a cautionary review.