Free Time opens on an office meeting between Drew (Colin Burgess) and his boss. Drew is dissatisfied with his data-analysis position because it’s too much data entry and too little analysis. “The computers do all of the analysis for you now. It’s really just… data,” he laments. The meeting ends unexpectedly with Drew surprising himself (and his boss) by putting in his two-week notice. It’s a savvy cold open that clues us into Drew’s lack of self-awareness being a source of amusement in the narrative to follow. 

Free Time is the feature-directing debut from Ryan Martin Brown and the latest comedy from 5th Floor Pictures, a Brooklyn-based collective responsible for last year’s underrated gem Yelling Fire in an Empty Theater. After a small-yet-memorable role in Yelling Fire, actor Colin Burgess takes a big step forward here, appearing in nearly every frame of Free Time’s airtight 77 minutes. He delivers a star-making turn as Drew, a frustrated twenty-something who wants more out of life––if only he could get out of his own way, or perhaps possess even an inkling of what he actually wants. This bumbling indecision makes Drew endlessly relatable, and a larger symbol for an entire generation of millennials, many of whom in recent years have reflected on cushy email jobs pondering, “Is this it?”

Drew is an idealist without any ideals, and as such his post-job search for meaning employs a scattershot approach. One morning it means choosing a fancy pastry over his usual bagel. But the pricey pastry proves too much for a now-broke Drew, so he ends up with the bagel after all. One Friday he decides to check out some local neighborhood bars––something he never had the energy to do after a long workweek. Not only does he have a mediocre time but he spends far too much money, admitting to his roommate (Rajat Suresh) the next morning: “I may have financially crippled myself last night.”

While Burgess’ Drew carries a touching earnestness and naivety, he is no Holy Fool, and Free Time alternates scenarios where Drew’s own hubris is responsible for triggering misunderstandings with others where a prevalent culture of deep-seated narcissism is at fault. Drew’s disposition couched within the hotbed of irony and inherent coolness that is Brooklyn make him play as sympathetic as he is frustrating. 

Free Time opts for fewer setpieces over its brisk runtime, choosing to patiently let each play out to their logical conclusion. It’s a confident move from a first-time writer-director and Brown’s cleverly constructed script matched with Burgess’ performance is a winning combination. The conclusion to each scenario is always clear in that it will end relatively disastrous for Drew, but the fun is in watching how it transpires. When Drew meets up for band practice, it’s both funny and painful to watch him slowly get edged out of the band’s newfound country sound––his keyboard-playing style no longer a proper fit. This scene also acts as a rare moral victory for Drew as he rightfully points out the inauthenticity of a Brooklyn-based band pivoting to outlaw country. (This is reminiscent of the current wave of urban dwellers sporting Carhartt workwear.)

With throwback title cards, jazzy interludes, and a wandering camera often shooting from a distance with zoom lenses, there’s an undeniable ’70s feeling to Free Time’s form. Altman came to my mind, and so I was unsurprised when Brown mentioned his influence to The Film Stage. Burgess’ performance as Drew is also old-school in a way we don’t see much anymore: deliberately showy yet not too cartoonish. Things are often so far to either end of the spectrum now: downplayed to an extreme or bombastic and over-the-top. 

Comedy is often wrung from Drew saying an odd turn of phrase for no discernible reason other than it’s funny; Burgess’ line-reading prowess renders this sufficient reason. When lying about being a smoker, he tells a woman that he left his “smoking stuff” upstairs. At another point he uses the phrase “payload” instead of “nest egg” to describe not saving up money before quitting so quickly. Brown’s script carries a keen ear for dialogue for both Burgess and the actors he interacts with. 

Brown’s script also refuses to present easy answers to Drew’s predicament. Just when you think maybe all he needs is someone to listen, you learn he might not have much to say. He meets up with an old friend and they quickly discover they have absolutely nothing to talk about: her identity is tied up in her new job and his is in not having one. Sometimes friends outgrow each other and you both move on without too much trouble or reflection. 

Drew is more verbose when delivering three anti-capitalism “speeches” throughout the film, growing in confidence with each one. The first is to his roommate Rajat who is mildly baffled it has taken Drew so long to realize that corporations don’t care about their employees. But as a good friend, he doesn’t point this out. Rajat is a clear foil to Drew: he too works an unfulfilling job as a clickbait writer, but doesn’t let this position define him. He also doesn’t field any desire to check out neighborhood bars––he’s content to spend time with his girlfriend Kim (Holmes), a firecracker who takes a decidedly tough-love approach to Drew’s spiraling. 

The second speech follows an ill-conceived attempt to get his job back by surprising his former boss on the street outside the office. This leads to Drew shouting about capitalism to anyone who might listen. A nearby stranger quickly joins in and, for once, Drew feels seen. This joy is short-lived however––it becomes clear this man joining in his chorus is mentally unwell. “They don’t let men be horny anymore!” he screams as Drew eases away terrified. Again, we may know a situation will end badly for Drew, but where a given scene ends frequently surprises.

What isn’t a surprise is that Drew’s anti-capitalist philosophy exists on shaky ground. At a party, one of Drew’s old coworkers applauds Drew quitting but admits: “I like to have nice things and you need money to buy nice things.” This mirrors the cynical speech Tom Wambsgans delivers in the final season of Succession. In the somewhat recent past, one might applaud someone for being so open about these desires, but it does feel, as a culture, we have moved beyond clapping for someone for being brazen about craven goals. On the other hand, it is undeniably nice to have nice things. In that moment, in the kitchen at the party, you sense Drew working out in his head that he might not be as deep as he once thought––he might prefer nice things too. 

Free Time takes an unexpected pivot in its final act after Drew’s most clear-hearted speech advocating a rejection of office life in favor of living life to the fullest. It’s not an eloquent address by any means, but when office drones are so starved for meaning, the message itself becomes more important than its package. This narrative swing helps elevate Free Time beyond what Brown describes as a simple “slice of life” drama up until that point. And within the tight runtime, even this ambitious coda is handled with impressive brevity. Free Time is a marvel of concise storytelling. 

Before moving into the director’s chair, Ryan Martin Brown was a producer and actor in Yelling Fire in an Empty Theater, a film that also placed narcissistic Brooklynites in its crosshairs. With Free Time he is clear to avoid underlining these elements too overtly, lest his characters become empty mouthpieces rather than actual humans. When bandleader Michael half-listens to Drew open up about his current predicament, he appears to sincerely want to hear him out, but is incapable due to a pinging cell phone that demands his attention. Free Time seems to question whether these hip urban enclaves attract narcissists or creates them. It’s a fair question, and Free Time’s strength comes in allowing ample room for grace alongside its indictments. Eschewing self-righteousness, Free Time merely presents a collection of observations on how modern life often plays out like an absurdist comedy. Burgess then steps in to provide the inarticulate mouthpiece for a generation of people who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, but unsure what the step beyond yelling about it entails. 

Free Time opens in New York City today and in Los Angeles on March 29. 

Grade: B+

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