Maybe 2006 will go down as the year of the little road trip movie thatcould. The superlatively funny "Little Miss Sunshine" was first onto thehighway, followed closely by the modest but winning "Puffy Chair." Thelatest to hit the road: the charming, acerbic "10 Items or Less."
A famous actor (Morgan Freeman), identified only as "Him," arrives at aremote shopping market somewhere in the never-ending outskirts of LosAngeles. After a few years of mostly voiceover work, he's doing researchfor an obscure independent project. "If it flies, great. If it doesn't,it won't even count," he reasons, providing the first hint of themeta-style narrative-within-a-narrative theme running throughout themovie. He claims to delight in the anonymity afforded by a small projectbut is coyly delighted when he's recognized.
The actor makes himself comfortable at the market -- painstakinglyshadowing the deliberate, unhurried moves of the manager (played byinimitable Wes Anderson favorite Kumar Pallana), commandeering thepublic address system, wandering the aisles in wonderment. Eventually,the actor becomes mesmerized by Scarlet, a feisty checkout worker (hencethe title) who remains pointedly unimpressed by the star's presence andonly grudgingly provides him transportation when his driver apparentlyforgets to pick him up. Scarlet is played by Paz Vega, the Spanishbeauty best known in the U.S. for her role in "Spanglish," who more thanholds 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 hisnew girlfriend, and where Target sells T-shirts for $8. "This isamazing," the actor breathes, flicking through racks of clothes.Freeman's character never loses his sense of wonder or his playfulnesswandering through everyday life, and Freeman embraces that freedom withgreat enthusiasm.
The movie, written and directed by Brad Silberling ("Moonlight Mile,""City of Angels"), moves at an agreeable, meandering pace but neverloses its verve or its sharp humor. As in "Mile," Silberlingdemonstrates an unerring ear for the natural, often discomfiting rhythmof two strangers tentatively forging a connection.
As Freeman's character disarms Scarlet, they develop a chemistry, morefraternal than sexual, fueled by the knowledge that they will never seeeach other again and also by their mutual, complementary needs. Thetightly wound Scarlet, nervously preparing for a job interview, soaks upthe actor's pre-audition techniques and tries to mimic his longstandingsense of entitlement. The actor, wrestling his dueling desires for fameand solitude, relishes his time with a woman who couldn't care less whohe is.