Tribeca Movie Review: Free Samples (out of competition, Spotlight)

Jess Wexler as Jillian, Jason Ritter as Wally in "Free Samples"

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

In Free Samples, the artificial ice cream concoction that’s being hawked to consumers as a tasty treat is nothing more than a chalky, bland mess. Ditto the film itself. The latest in a seemingly unending, wearying parade of slacker comedies, the movie initially appeals with an engaging title and the box office name of Jesse Eisenberg. Proving once again, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Or, for that matter, a free sample.

If it’s free, how can we complain? Ah, but we will anyway. If nothing else, to voice our discontent at having to waste 80 precious minutes with a project that seems more akin to a student film than not. Can we speak to the manager, please?

Sorry, but the manager is permanently off-screen, and full-time employee Nancy (Halley Feiffer) just dashed off to handle a personal family matter. It seems that the ice cream truck – displaying the whimsical signage of “Mike’s Dream,” with an ice cream cone standing in for the letter “i” – is now in the shaky hands of Jillian (Jess Wexler), who inadvertently finds herself filling in for her friend Nancy. Hung over from twelve-too-many at the bar the night before, Jillian’s stuck in the truck, in the heat, with a glower on her face that acts as a perfect antidote for the sweet product she’s serving. Yes, she’s stuck. Hell, we all are. Does anyone want to order up a plot while we’re waiting?

A debut feature for both director Jay Gammill and screenwriter Jim Beggarly, the lightweight story smacks of illogic from the get-go. Why park a truck in a dead-end L.A. neighborhood, where the foot traffic is minimal at best? If the business owner, say the somnolent Mike, is eager to disseminate his frosty swill, why sequester the business as if it’s part of a witness protection program? (Unless it is, which might have made for an intriguing subplot. Or, rather, any kind of intrigue whatsoever.) Instead, we get a blasé bunch of customers, drifting toward the truck’s window in a steady trickle, adding next-to-nothing to this frozen wasteland. Such as: a kid who flips Jillian off; a guy who wants to buy a stamp; a little girl who’s got a jerk for a daddy; and a bongo-playing, snarling woman who Jillian pays to bring her back a large coffee. Gee, will she ever return? We’re riveted …

Jess Wexler as Jillian, Jesse Eisenberg as Tex in "Free Samples"

The self-centered Jillian initially reminds us of Charlize Theron’s dismissive misanthrope in Young Adult. But between Wexler’s performance and the script’s shortcomings, her streak of nasty is inconsistent at best. While Jillian tosses off a few good lines (e.g., her suggesting that the tip proffered to the bongo-player should go toward the bongo-player’s IRA account), she inexplicably oscillates into areas of empathy and kindness. In particular, Wexler’s scenes with Tippi Hedren’s elderly actress are oddly diffused, as if the soft focus filter used on Ms. Hedren’s face had gone rogue, suddenly enveloping the entire scene.

Eisenberg sticks out, particularly with his overly long, look-at-me speech in the second act. If he wasn’t best buds with the filmmakers, then we’ll have to assume that Eisenberg took on this indie role in order to diversify his nerd persona with this suave, albeit feeble, version … of yet one more nerd. Note to Eisenberg: next time, how about playing a loud, maniacal killer with an IQ of 25?

Neither witty, nor compelling, nor an incisive snapshot of the rootless Gen Ys, Free Samples doesn’t even have the taste to be tasteless. To Jillian’s query, “Chocolate or vanilla?,” the answer is obvious. Vanilla, from start to finish.

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Rating on a scale of 5 empty calories: 1.5

Directed by: Jay Gammill
Screenplay by: Jim Beggarly
Cast: Jess Wexler, Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Ritter, Halley Feiffer, Tippi Hedren
Running Time: 80 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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