' ' Cinema Romantico: 10 Items or Less and Stardom's Burden

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

10 Items or Less and Stardom's Burden

A Famous Hollywood Actor With No Name (Morgan Freeman) has been dropped off by a spacy member of a ragtag independent film crew at a sleepy supermarket far, far from the red carpets in order to "research" a role. He happens upon a display case of DVDs. One of the DVDs is his own, something called "Double Down", co-starring, ahem, Ashley Judd. He hides his own forgettable DVD behind several other forgettable DVDs. Sometimes you just don't want to be you, not even if you are a multi-millions reaping celebrity.

We are alternately envious and fed up with celebrities. They earn too much money. They travel the globe. They have really nice clothes. Why should luminaries with enough cultural cache to have Oscars and US Weekly covers deserve our sympathy? Why should any of us ever feel even a smidgen of pity for, say, Nicole Kidman and her Chanel-scented poshness? Perhaps because every now and then a paparazzo tries to bug her home or drive his goddam motorbike right at her. Personally, personal space and privacy are notions I cherish, and in a Hollywood-tinted spotlight they quickly become lofty ideals that literally must be fought for (lost, regained, lost, etc.). And I wonder if Ms. Kidman, so busy so recently in so many challenging roles, sees the chance for being so busy in so many challenging roles as a respite, a chance to disappear to a place where no one is (pointlessly) questioning the validity of her forehead.

You can sense The Famous Hollywood Actor With No Name in "10 Items or Less" seeking a challenge. We learn he hasn’t worked in several years. He keeps claiming this role he’s researching is “nothing I’ve committed to.” But then why did he come all the way out to who-knows-where to glean insight into re-stocking fruit and Cheerios? This, it would appear, is a cry for help, an aching for a performance to give, a role into which he can disappear, damn the prospective budget. We learn very little of his home life, yet the very fact that he is reluctant to speak of it would seem to suggest a desire to leave it behind for the day. Thus, when he encounters the requisite feisty cashier, Scarlet (Paz Vega), working the 10 Items or Less lane and holding steadfast to what that title implies, he finds himself drawn to both her feistiness and her frank duty to a job she clearly cannot stand. What, he wonders, would make someone behave in such a way? Because hey, like he says, “That's all character is. Behavior."

He charms his way into her existence and tags along with her for the rest of day. This is partly because the spacy member of the ragtag independent film crew never turns back up to give him a ride home and partly because he does not know his own phone number (actors!) and his agent and manager and everyone else are out of the office because it's a Jewish holiday. But maybe it’s neither of those things. Maybe The Famous Hollywood Actor With No Name is merely acting, playing dumb because he wants to research Scarlet, or because he’s found a part to play (Scarlet’s Sidekick! Her very own Ashley Judd!).

She has a job interview, which he keeps calling an "audition", and becomes adamant in aiding her preparation. A trip to Target for new clothing and makeup. A little protein in the form of Arby's roast beef. A car wash. Conversation during and in-between. That’s the whole movie. “But the bare-boned simplicity," as Stephanie Zacharek noted in her original Salon review, "is more a strength than a liability." Truth. And something true emerges from that simplicity.

A few years back Bruce Springsteen, Planet Earth's Poet Laureate, infamously made an appearance in a couple's wedding engagement photo on the boardwalk in Manasquan, NJ. It was all happenstance. Jennifer Smith and Ed Dwyer just happened to be there with their photographer at the same moment as Bruce. So, guitar in hands, he sat down beside them on a bench and strummed as the photographer snapped away. I love the photo because it’s one of those times when the line between Bruce and his Fans is completely blurred – we’re him, he’s us. Don't misunderstand, he’s not REALLY us and I don’t think he necessarily wants to be us even if he sometimes plays up that notion (image-conscious, I believe, is the term). But I'm sure he wonders about it. I'm sure he'd like to be an ordinary person for a day or two, maybe more, just to see, just to know, just to have that experience, just to find out what it’s like to be on the left side of that photo rather than the right.

In essence that is what happens to our Famous Hollywood Actor With No Name. Most everyone he encounters seems to know who he is but, even so, he blends in and becomes ordinary. And even as he becomes ordinary, he gazes around with a genuine glint in his eyes, finding the extraordinary in everything – be it a mop, ridiculously cheap designer tee shirts or a certain superstore. “This place is unbelievable.” “It’s Target.” 

God help me, that sounds simplistic, like an insipid motivational speaker by way of a famous movie actor. Freeman, to his everlasting credit, never plays the part simply, or cynically, instead conveying a warm curiosity. That curiosity is the film’s sole means of commentary – a member of Hollywood’s Elysium coming down to Earth to blend and behave. It offers no remedy for matters of class in America, content with simply saying: “See? We can co-exist.”

As Scarlet's car undergoes a thorough washing, The Famous Hollywood Actor With No Name improbably makes fast friends with the employees. So as "La Receta" plays on the soundtrack, he takes a washcloth and takes the lead, guiding them from car to car, smiling and sashaying. For a moment, you can practically see him walking on air. He’s lost himself in the part.

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