If you’re particularly fond of Hitchcock muse Tippi Hedren, then you’re among the few who should be even slightly persuaded to sit through Free Samples, an angry indie that favors hollow ridicule over credibility. In the L.A.-set film, Hedren plays an aging bombshell not unlike herself, who keeps the TV tuned to TCM because it “seems like a reunion,” and shares insights on lust and vanity like a shrewd call girl trapped in elderly skin. Hedren’s brief scenes prove remarkably arresting, and her character’s life tips for lead whiner Jillian (Jess Weixler) mark the only true escape from a litany of bad jokes and affected crises. Frequenting the ice cream truck that Jillian’s manning as a favor to a friend, Hedren’s actress, Betty, offers fascinating wisdom on everything from life stages to gay husbands, and she confides that she visits the truck because it reminds her of her childhood. But the fact that Betty prefers ski poles to a cane, and walks down the street with them in the gleam of the midday sun, is a good indication of the kind of faux quirks this movie peddles, and it’s telling that even the ice cream is discussed as being creepily artificial.
Jillian is a terrible protagonist—an antiheroine whose bad attitude is so off-putting that the realization that she’s redemption-bound is almost shocking. A former Stanford law student now considering art careers despite a lack of talent, she’s introduced in a bar while spewing meaningless complaints, the capper being, “You know what’s fucked up? Everything.” The following day sees her miserably fill in for bestie Nancy (Halley Feiffer) while coping with a wicked hangover, whose stance as the ultimate excuse for deplorable actions feels as immature as it does tired. Written by Jim Beggarly and directed by Jay Gammill, Free Samples thinks it’s awfully funny that Jillian would probably murder someone for a cup of coffee, and even funnier that the person who finally gets it for her is a noisy bum who’s read the riot act. This is a movie with the sense of humor of a high school bully, who thinks meanness is amusing simply because it’s transgressive. And what’s worse, the door swings both ways: It’s not just Jillian who’s rendered subhuman, but also plenty of the folks she encounters while handing out free ice cream samples. One woman, who complains about the volume of the truck’s music, responds to Jillian’s refusal to cooperate with, “I’ll call the cops and they’ll come shoot you.” Gammill has an eye for succinctly capturing his setting, letting a lemon-strewn parking lot serve as a snapshot of a city, but unless he’s aiming to paint its entire population as equally sour, his ear for communication is alarmingly deficient.
You can sense Weixler aching to pump some soul into her character, and the film’s faults are far more due to its makers than its cast, but it’s tough to forgive this game blonde for showing such a lack of discernment after breaking through in Teeth. Even tougher is figuring out what drew dependable players like Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Ritter to the project, the former breezing through meager screen time in a forgettable boyfriend role, and the latter rounding out Jillian’s poorly drawn circle of friends. The men are as ultimately insignificant as the ice cream truck patrons, who are meant to serve as an influential, reforming cross section of the human race, but instead could cripple one’s faith in the species. Apart from Hedren’s beam of light, there’s a single climactic interaction between Jillian and her ex (Keir O’Donnell) that shows some spark, finding an oddly alluring, roundabout way to unfurl revealing layers of backstory. But by that time, Free Samples has irreversibly dug its own grave, growing less funny and less pleasant by the scene. With every cold remark and crotchety complaint, Jillian insists that the story of her quarter-life crisis is equivalent to saying nothing at all.