You know who's loving this Sundance Film Festival? FX's comedy development team. Not only is Louis C.K. (of the upcoming "Louie") expected to be one of the big stars of the Festival's second week with the documentary "Hilarious," but everywhere you look, another star of "The League" is hovering on the cusp of mainstream success.

First it was Mark Duplass, already a darling of the indie cinema circuit, putting himself in line for a breakout with the well-regarded "Cyrus."

Then, on Sunday (Jan. 24) night, Duplass' "The League" co-star (and real-life wife) Katie Aselton made a big statement with "The Freebie," an ultra-low-budget relationship-comedy she wrote, produced, directed and starred in.

With a running time of under 80 minutes, "The Freebie" is a small movie, but there's no aspect of this gem that isn't a triumph for Aselton, who shot her feature directing debut in only 11 days.

[Full review of "The Freebie" after the break...]

Annie (Aselton) and Darren (Dax Shepard) are in love. They've been married for years and they have a relationship based on honesty and friendship. Their only problem? They haven't had sex since Halloween and it's well into the New Year. They'd rather do dueling crossword puzzles than get physically intimate and they begin to wonder if something might be wrong.

In a late-night conversation, they come up with an intriguing plan: Content with the state of trust in their marriage, they decide to take a night off from marriage. For one night, Annie and Darren are allowed to go off and have a one-night stand, no questions asked. Is this "freebie" the shot in the arm that they need to get the sparks flying again or is it a tremendous mistake?

Well, um... Duh.

One of the hits of last Sundance was "Humpday," featuring Duplass and Joshua Leonard (who also has a small role in "Freebie"), an awkward comedy about two guys who make a decision that doesn't make a lick of sense and then spend the rest of the movie trying to talk themselves into the logic of that decision.

"The Freebie" may be the "Humpday" of Sundance 2010, right down to the marvelously misguided logic of the couple's plan, as well as the largely improvised dialogue, built around Aselton's carefully structured outline. While "Humpday" failed to find any traction in its limited theatrical release, I think "Freebie" has a chance to play to a larger audience if only because the plot doesn't revolve around making an amateur gay porn video. [In addition, despite sharing cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke, "Freebie" lacks the calculated digital cinema ugliness that made "Humpday" difficult to promote.]

The two movies share a comfortable mixture of naturalism and brainy humor, with likable characters and a strong sense of place. It's rare to see a movie or TV show make such good use of Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood without using insufferable hipsters as the focus. In contrast, Aselton's characters seem like they'd be fun to hang out with and the movie's two centerpiece dinner party scenes are clever and well orchestrated.

As stupidly as Annie and Darren behave, Aselton and Shepard make their plan feel plausible, or at least they show how, in the moment, the plan was spurred by love. The chemistry between the stars makes them an easy couple to root for.

While I've occasionally found Shepard funny in movies, this is the best performance of his career by a wide margin, probably because the improvisation let him find a rhythm that's all his own. There was a brief period with "Let's Go to Prison" and "Without a Paddle" when casting directors thought they could make Shepard a comedy star. That didn't work, but this movie is going to make some people think he's a viable romantic-comedy leading man. He's also not afraid to give Darren ugly moments and his behavior in the last third of the movie produced audible audience reactions at the premiere.

This is also Aselton's best performance and one that ought to garner her the attentions of studio casting departments. She's beautiful, hits her comic beats hard and can play drama as well, though with her multi-hyphenate status on "The Freebie," I wouldn't blame Aselton for shying away the inevitable paycheck-gig offers to play Amy Adams or Jessica Alba's best friend in bad movies. Or maybe this will just inspire the "League" team to make the fantasy football comedy's second season "The Mark-n-Katie Show." In fact, I'm quite certain I'd like "The League" more if Aselton and Duplass took on a stronger behind-the-scenes role.

"Cyrus" already has distribution with Fox Searchlight and I really need to find the time to see it before I leave Park City. i hope that some indie label makes a smart investment and snags "The Freebie" as well. Like I said earlier, I think it's an accessible and conceivably mainstream movie.

It's a little odd that in a day where I watched Philip Seymour Hoffman's feature directing debut and Katie Aselton's feature directing debut, it's "The Freebie" that has me most excited for the arrival of a fresh and original filmmaking voice.

 

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