Saturday, April 21, 2012

#TFF Review: "Free Samples"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Why isn’t Jess Weixler a giant, unstoppable movie star by now? She’s an effortlessly engaging performer, the kind of actor you’re immediately locked in to onscreen, and she’s great-looking, but in a slightly offbeat way that keeps you from being bored by her attractiveness. She first made an impression in the way-the-fuck-out-there 2007 horror/comedy Teeth, and she’s done some work since (she’s terrific in the absurdist buddy comedy Somebody Up There Likes Me, which played at SXSW last month), but she hasn’t really had a role that shown what she can do. Free Samples, a new comedy from director Jay Gammill, provides her with that role—and, unfortunately, does not give her a vehicle worthy of it.

 Jillian (Weixler) is a law school drop-out, untethered in Los Angeles. She left a boy behind, Danny (“Kinda my boyfriend… kinda my fiancé…”), but she’s spending most of her nights hammered, and sleeping with a lot of surfer dudes. Most of the film’s action is centered on a single day, as Jillian fills in for her best friend Nancy (Halley Feiffer), handing out free samples of an “ice cream-like substance” on a food truck and trying to figure out her mess of a life.

In other words, it’s Clerks with a cute blonde. Its best scenes come early, as hung-over Jillian encounters a parade of moron customers; one looks at the “Free samples, today only” sign and asks, earnestly, “You’re giving out free samples, today only?”, while another asks, illogically enough, “Do you have any stamps?” When Jillian says she does not, the young man presses her: “Are you sure?”

Those scenes are endlessly funny, because screenwriter Jim Beggarly has equipped Jillian with a series of priceless, impatient retorts that are a perfect fit Weixler’s droll, tart delivery. It’s a spiky, rambunctious performance; she beautifully captures the kind of cool character you’d enjoy having a drink or two with, before realizing she’s secretly terrible. Weixler conveys the likability and the impossibility simultaneously, which isn’t easy to pull off.

Unfortunately, the schematism of Beggarly’s script all but torpedoes the picture in its second half. First, Jesse Eisenberg arrives at the truck for a duet scene; he appears briefly earlier, in a bar scene, and shows up here to deliver a big monologue that feels far too much like a big monologue. The movie basically stops cold for a character we don’t really know, and it never truly gets back up to speed. Eisenberg’s vignette is followed by an old lady turn by Tippi Hedren—and while it’s good to see her, and it’s a wonderful little scene in and of itself, it feels dropped in from another film.

But there’s a purpose to these visits, and the bombshell that closes her shift: Jillian must learn her little lessons, and become a better person, and all of that jazz. If anything, Free Samples suffers from living in a post-Young Adult world, where that kind of arc seems patently false, fraudulent almost; the whole thing is hard to swallow, particularly when it arrives at its too-clean conclusion. The admirably messiness and hard edges of Weixler’s character are sanded down in a manner that doesn’t do justice to her performance. It’s a shame, but it doesn’t deflate the film entirely; sure, Free Samples isn’t a great movie, but it’s a fine vehicle for an actor worth watching.

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