Movie review: '10 Items or Less'

3 stars (out of four)

Maybe 2006 will go down as the year of the little road trip movie that could. The superlatively funny "Little Miss Sunshine" was first onto the highway, followed closely by the modest but winning "Puffy Chair." The latest to hit the road: the charming, acerbic "10 Items or Less."

A famous actor (Morgan Freeman), identified only as "Him," arrives at a remote shopping market somewhere in the never-ending outskirts of Los Angeles. After a few years of mostly voiceover work, he's doing research for an obscure independent project. "If it flies, great. If it doesn't, it won't even count," he reasons, providing the first hint of the meta-style narrative-within-a-narrative theme running throughout the movie. He claims to delight in the anonymity afforded by a small project but of course is coyly delighted when he's recognized.

The actor makes himself comfortable at the market--painstakingly shadowing the deliberate, unhurried moves of the manager (played by inimitable Wes Anderson favorite Kumar Pallana), commandeering the public address system, wandering the aisles in wonderment. Eventually, the actor becomes mesmerized by Scarlet, a feisty checkout worker (hence the title), who remains pointedly unimpressed by the star's presence and only grudgingly provides him transportation when his driver apparently forgets to pick him up. Scarlet is played by Paz Vega, the Spanish beauty best known in the U.S. for her role in "Spanglish," who more than holds her own against Freeman.

As they motor through the bleached-out Southern California landscape, Scarlet takes the actor on an accidental tour of "the other America," where her verbally abusive almost-ex-husband lives in a trailer with his new girlfriend, and where Target sells T-shirts for $8. "This is amazing," the actor breathes, flicking through racks of clothes. Freeman's character never loses his sense of wonder or his playfulness wandering through everyday life, and Freeman embraces that freedom with great enthusiasm.

The movie, written and directed by Brad Silberling ("Moonlight Mile," "City of Angels"), moves at an agreeable, meandering pace but never loses its verve or its sharp humor. As in "Mile," Silberling demonstrates an unerring ear for the natural, often discomfiting rhythm of two strangers tentatively forging a connection.

As Freeman's character disarms Scarlet, they develop a chemistry, more fraternal than sexual, fueled by the knowledge that they will never see each other again and also by their mutual, complementary needs. The tightly wound Scarlet, nervously preparing for a job interview, soaks up the actor's pre-audition techniques and tries to mimic his long-standing sense of entitlement. The actor, wrestling his dueling desires for fame and solitude, relishes his time with a woman who couldn't care less who he is.

jreaves@tribune.com

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'10 Items or Less'

Written and directed by Brad Silberling; photographed by Phedon Papamichael; edited by Michael Kahn; music by Antonio Pinto; production design by Denise Pizzini; produced by Julie Lynn, Lori McCreary and Silberling. A ThinkFilm release; opens Friday. Running time: 122. MPAA rating: R (for language).

Him - Morgan Freeman

Scarlet - Paz Vega

Bobby - Bobby Canavale

Lee - Kumar Pallana

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