Director: Jay Gammill
Runtime: 80 minutes
Free Samples, directed by Jay Gammill, feels like a short film stretched out in to feature length, to only a mild degree of success. Starring indie darling Jess Weixler as Jillian, the film serves as a chamber movie of sorts, if a desolate parking lot can be a chamber. We open with Jillian on another drunken night, bullshitting with friend Nancy (Halley Feiffer), Nancy’s dumbbell boyfriend Wally (Jason Ritter) and a charming stranger they call Tex (Jesse Eisenberg).
Cut to the morning after. Jillian wakes up naked and hungover in Nancy’s apartment, only to find out her friend needs a big favor: sub for her in handing out free samples of a new ice cream-esque type of dessert all day. Without much of a choice, Jillian concedes.
And so goes the remaining 70 minutes of the brief, 80-minute film. Jillian sits, and stands, in a truck handing out free samples to an array of characters and caricatures, none of them anywhere near as interesting as Jillian herself. Except perhaps Betty, an aging former Hollywood starlet played by Tippi Hedren, herself an aged Hollywood starlet. Their scenes together are affecting, Hedren speaking freely about her life under the Hollywood sign and the who and the why of the those she married.
This is Weixler’s show full-stop, and she makes the most of it. If only screenwriter Jim Beggarly made the most of the words on his pages and Gammill did more to make those words come alive. Too often the film plays it safe, allowing Jillian to only be so mean and brutally honest, refusing to take her character a step further. Had Gammill gone the route of Jody Hill a la Observe and Report and created someone truly despicable, the polarization could have allowed his film some sort of cult status. Unfortunately, the meandering, general distaste we have for Jillian survives throughout the film, her character never changing much at all. Any chance of relating to Jillian is lost in this lack of development. We never love her or hate her, or even like her much at all.
Ritter is miscast as the dope here, offering a broad comedic subplot involving his band and lack of intelligence. It’s something that belongs in an Adam Sandler movie. These problems seem to amount to a general lack of clear vision from the director, throwing a bunch of different ideas against his canvas in the hopes of creating a cohesive piece of work.
While it’s refreshing to watch Eisenberg spread his wings and broaden his character scope, nostalgic to watch Hedren reappear for a brief time and inspiring to see Weixler prove herself as a potential comedic leading lady, those behind the camera don’t do them any favors. We are left with something that’s almost an interesting feature, that might have served better as a fun little short.
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