The Freebie begins with the sort of dinner party that only takes place in independent movies: instead of discussing The Real Housewives of New Jersey or listening to one guest’s recap of every trade from his fantasy-football season, the entire table debates a big, provocative question. In the case of The Freebie, the question is, if you knew you were going to meet your spouse, would you have dated or slept with more people first? Trying to answer it leads happily married couple Annie (Katie Aselton) and Darren (Dax Shepard) to agree to give each other one night off from monogamy.
Too often, this type of high-concept film suffers from its implausibility. By the time the characters have sufficiently convinced each other, and the audience, that they absolutely must do the ridiculous thing they are considering, the movie’s over. This was the case with Humpday, in which two heterosexual friends decide to make a gay porn film. Although the actors were totally believable and engaging, the challenge of selling the premise was too great—you never stopped wondering what on earth they were thinking.
In The Freebie, which was directed by Aselton (who is married to Humpday star Mark Duplass), what Annie and Darren were thinking is the point of the movie. Annie and Darren are almost too adorable, in a mismatched plates and old sweatshirts kind of way, and there’s a chilling thrill in watching this sweet couple set out to sabotage their relationship. Aselton, who also wrote the script, deftly conveys how the characters allow themselves to be convinced that their proposal is a good idea without suggesting the audience should buy the couple’s rationalizations for fooling around.
Everything is perfect in Annie and Darren’s marriage, except they can’t remember the last time they had sex. Rather than questioning whether their union is in fact as flawless as they think, they conclude that sex with other people will be the key to marital bliss. In a way, they’re right: the destabilizing effect of discussing the proposition, in a joking/not joking way, instantly spices up the relationship.
Since spoilers seem to be a sore subject this week, we won’t say whether the couple goes through with the plan or not. Because the movie unfolds non-linearly, it’s possible to read it either way—some of the scenes could be each character’s projected fantasy of how things might play out. This interpretation suggests that intimacy comes not from monogamy or its opposite, but from appreciating what you have. Low concept, maybe, but still something to talk about at your next dinner party.