Ashley Judd haunts Morgan Freeman in writer-director Brad Silberling’s sly, low-budget charmer. Not the actress in person, precisely, but from the cover of a discounted DVD that lurks in every bargain bin he comes across, from the grocery store to the car wash. Freeman’s head is on the cover next to her, and judging by the shadows and portention, the flick hails from a previous string of cheeseball noirs they made together, an era Freeman’s character—who is not exactly Freeman, but another big-bucks star with the same bank account and artistic missteps—is looking to escape by taking on a new indie project. Which is how his nameless alter ego became a drifting method actor lost in Carson, California, where rundown strip malls make the suburb feel twice as far away from his Brentwood home than it is on the map.
Abandoned by a production assistant at Archie’s Ranch Market, where’s he’s preparing for his next role by studying the tics of an authentic grocery manager, Freeman masters the man’s hunched shuffle and deliberate produce stacking technique only to realize that in addition to being ditched, he doesn’t know his own phone number. Which is a problem for Archie’s cashier Scarlet (a luscious and fierce Paz Vega) who’s forced to baby-sit this snoopy bozo for his own protection long after her morning shift ends. Scarlet was in a rotten mood long before Freeman glommed onto her like a toddler. Not only is her supervisor (Bobby Cannavale, in his second loathsome Lothario turn this month) banging the lazy checkout girl (Anne Dudek), Scarlet’s married to the jerk, and he’s just impregnated her rival. This afternoon, the hard-working Scarlet has an important interview for a secretarial position that could be her ticket out of this grocery store purgatory. She could ace it alone, but Freeman’s determined to help, regardless of whether she wants his intrusive offers of a car wash, lip gloss and a sandwich.
That’s all the plot Silberling’s 75-minute film can handle. Its real order of business is setting Freeman loose on Southern California to compliment, tease and bond with its natives. Like everyone’s embarrassingly chatty grandpa, here Freeman can’t walk through a Target without applauding giddy women on their purchases. At the car wash, he leads the rag men in a conga line of waxing and buffing before sharing a misty moment watching The Yearling. He’s delighted by it all—but Scarlet is resistant to his infectious charm. (Perhaps she doubted his sincerity when he gushed over her trailer park.) Still, after a decade of being forced to lend his gravitas to cheesy thrillers and inspirational dramas, it’s such a pleasure to watch Freeman kick up his heels that it almost—almost—excuses this aimless crowd-pleaser for being padded, even if the running time is shorter than a drive to the beach from Santa Monica. With its natural dialogue and spot-on local color, Silberling has shot what feels like the first home movie to get a national release; it’s too cute to criticize for anything other than its fluff. But even that feels like kicking a puppy.