Don’t ask, don’t tell: The Freebie ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 9, 2010)

Men and Women stoop to conquer
Men and Women stoop so low
Men and Women filled with doubt
They scream about what they don’t know

-from “Myn and Wymnyn”, by Uncle Bonsai

The tagline for the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally triggered a flurry of panel discussions around the water cooler back in 1989 with its rhetorical question: “Can two friends sleep together and still love each other in the morning?”

In her 2010 directorial debut, The Freebie, actress Katie Aselton (The Puffy Chair) ups the ante by asking “Can a married couple award each other a mutual pass to sleep with someone else for one night…and still love each other in the morning?” Perhaps the bigger question is: “Are human beings even wired in any way, shape or form to remain truly monogamous?”

Aselton casts herself as Annie, one half of an attractive, happily married thirty-something L.A. couple (no kids). Well, at least on the surface, it would appear that Annie and her Jackson Browne lookalike hubby Darren (Dax Shepard) are a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky pair. In fact, they are so goddamned good looking, textbook compatible and in tune with each other’s feelings that you want to throttle them. Well, not literally-but you catch my drift; especially if you’re as bitter and disillusioned as me (and isn’t everyone?).

However, you know what they say about that dreaded “7-year itch” (guess how many years Annie and Darren have been betrothed). The first harbinger of trouble in paradise arrives one night, following an awkward mission abort on a lovemaking session.

Before any uncomfortable conversation can ensue, Darren quickly suggests a “race” to see which one of them can first complete a minute crossword, and Annie eagerly agrees to this whimsical distraction from the elephant in the bedroom (I was reminded of the classic scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is ranting in the middle of the night to his significant other about the JFK assassination, and she suddenly blurts out with “You’re using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid sex with me.”).

The Talk inevitably occurs a few nights later, wherein they realize that, despite their undying commitment to the marriage, their sex life could use sprucing up.

This is the point in the film where you may feel compelled to start yelling at the screen. Darren and Annie agree to give each other a “free pass” for one evening; in short, mutual “permission” to have a one night stand outside of the marriage, with a few “don’t ask, don’t tell” caveats. The theory is that this will strengthen their love and trust in each other. This is an interesting idea, in theory-but if you know anything about human nature, as I said, you may begin yelling at the screen at this juncture…begging them not to do it.

They do it. God help them. Why do people always tinker? It’s never perfect enough, is it? Is anyone ever truly happy and content, no matter how good they’ve got it? Silly creatures. There are unanticipated consequences, natch. Still, you will be compelled to stick with these two idiots, to just see how it all plays out (in for a penny, in for a pound).

I would have been doing even more yelling at the screen, had this been a typical Hollywood rom-com, but it’s not. Aselton has delivered a well-acted, refreshingly realistic look at the complexities of love and modern relationships; warm, touching, funny and engaging without leaning on hackneyed plot contrivances.

I liked the fact that there is no pat denouement, wrapped up with a bow; because real relationships (and our lives in general) rarely play out that way. I understand that many of the scenes were improvised; this gives the film its naturalistic vibe.

It’s rare these days to discover a perceptive film for grownups, that actually has something substantive to offer, without wearing out its welcome. Kind of like a perfect relationship…if you’re lucky enough to be in one, it would behoove you to heed the film’s message: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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