When a contemporary director wants to impart a heightened sense of naturalism to a fictional film, he or she often draws on the aesthetics of the documentary—specifically those techniques associated with direct cinema—to serve as a signifier of authenticity. Whether it’s Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck employing handheld cameras and lurching half-zooms to add immediacy to their tale of a Latin-American baseball player displaced in the hinterlands of middle-America in Sugar or Joe Swanberg employing his close-views and trademark, um, functional framings in any of his movies, it’s become an article of faith that a specific set of documentary techniques instantly equals you-are-there naturalism and creates a greater sense of intimacy than would otherwise be possible. Of course, the use of verité strategies in narrative films is nothing new (and, indeed, all of film history can be read as the interplay between documentary and fictional modes), but never has it seemed such a readily available option for such a wide range of filmmakers and never has it been so frequently used as a crutch to bolster substandard material.
In The Freebie, Katie Aselton’s look at the unraveling of a young couple’s marriage, the director calls on the whole range of documentary techniques to signify the sort of laying bare of the truth that her intimately detailed screenplay can’t quite manage. Never are Aselton’s failings more evident than in a pair of dinner party scenes, one of which opens the film, and which involve the central couple and their friends in a discussion of the nature of romance. As the director’s handheld camera picks out individual faces in framings that have the feel of randomness rather than spontaneity, the characters reveal their conventional attitudes toward romance and lifestyle (“What made you two want to have a baby?” a character asks an expectant couple. “It’s just kind of the next logical step,” the soon-to-be-father replies). But just as these rounds of Symposium ultra-lite fail to generate any dialectical tension, so Aselton’s verité technique is unable to impart the sense of eavesdropping on folks-just-talking, as the camerawork calls attention to itself and the actors have trouble selling the lines with the offhand manner required to sustain the illusion.
When the film’s central couple, Darren (Dax Shepard) and Annie (Aselton), return home, the director maintains the technique, but in the face of a more probing consideration of the problems of romance that soon takes over, it loses its insistent sense of signification and becomes a less officious vehicle for documenting the conversation. After a sexy photo shoot finds the couple responding by easing into their nightly routine of crossword puzzles instead of fucking, the pair begins a discussion of the sexual failings of their relationship. As they try to remember the last time they got it on, Darren talks his way around the act, never uttering the word “sex,” as if embarrassed by the need to talk about such things. In the end, they conclude that, though they haven’t been intimate in months, neither feels the celibacy as a vital lack and what’s important is that they love each other. But what Aselton makes clear in this sensitively directed scene is that even as both parties confess their contentment, they’re clearly each disturbed, if not by the absence of the sex act itself, than by the fact that the conventions of romantic relationships deem that they should be bothered by their sustained bout of abstinence.
In fact, the conventions of coupling are very much the background of the film, expressed most explicitly by a gleefully monogamous friend of the pair who insists that he has not the slightest desire to cheat on his girlfriend. All of which makes the solution that the couple eventually reaches—one night of mutual infidelity, no questions asked—feel like a potentially productive challenge to those conventions. But Darren and Annie seem, if possible, more traditionally oriented than their friends and it’s clear from the start that their experiment, which they discuss obsessively in hypothetical terms until the hypothetical becomes the actual, can only end in disaster. “So what good will this do for your relationship?” demands Annie’s sister when Annie floats the idea and that sibling’s critical attitude toward the exchange of “freebies” points out not only the weakness in the couple’s plan, but in the movie’s central narrative as well.
From the moment Darren and Annie agree to sleep with another person, their downward trajectory is pretty much guaranteed. Intercutting between each member of the couple on their night of sanctioned romance, Aselton gives us the setup but not the finale, withholding the certainty that each partner went through with the act and adding a note of ambiguity to an otherwise by-the-numbers denouement. Unsurprisingly, after the event, an air of sullen non-communication crops up between the formerly easy-going pair and, when, after days of silent misery, Annie forces a discussion, the two exchange hurtful recriminations. Thus, the essential movement of the film is to trace a couple putting into practice a really awful idea and then to observe the misery that results.
I’m all for willing couples engaging in swinging, but it’s painfully evident from the start of the film what the result is going to look like for this particular pair. All that remains is to sit back and watch the fireworks, but beyond informing us that a night of consensual cheating probably won’t re-spark a couple’s sex life, there’s very little insight into the nature of long-term romance that emerges from the director’s working out of the couple’s experiment. “What a fucking stupid idea,” Darren concludes, a week after engaging in his life-changing act, “all to avoid going ‘Hey, we need to fix this’.” Well, no shit.