10 Items or Less: Brad Silberling’s Tale, Starring Morgan Freeman

It’s inexcusable to have the best actor in American film, Morgan Freeman, appearing in such a slight and self-indulgent melodrama as “10 Items or Less.” Except that Freeman serves as executive producer, so he must have seen something in the script that I didn’t.

The picture, whose running time is 72 minutes (sans the unnecessary outtakes, which last about 10 minutes), represents a step down for writer-director Brad Silberling, even compared to the underwhelming but at least more ambitious, Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events.

A two-handler for the recent Oscar-winner Freeman and Spanish actress Paz Vega (who was the best thing in “Spanglish” last year), “10 Items or Less” is the kind of self-indulgent film that gives a bad name to American independent cinema.

It’s even impossible to admire the ultra-modest qualities of the picture, which was shot in Carson, California over the course of 15 days, because it looks and sounds rather bad.

In this tale, Freeman plays himself (kind of), an actor who’s dropped off at an off-the-beaten-path supermarket in order to conduct research for an upcoming movie role.

After observing the place from a distance, Freeman crosses paths with Scarlet (Paz Vega), the pragmatic cashier, who flaunts special skills behind the counter; she can accurately tally a shopping basket in her head.

After a prolonged interaction set indoors, Silberling moves the couple outdoors, when the couple hit the road in Scarlet’s old yellow Gremlin. While Freeman preps her for a job interview, she introduces him to her routine tasks at Target.

Silberling fails to show any humor in the couple’s exchanges of their worldviews and lifestyles, and considering that this is a two-character melodrama, it’s hard even to tell how he feels towards his characters, which is a major shortcoming. Basically, it’s unclear why he decided to make the picture in the first place.

As director, he’s helped by his two performers, both of whom are likable pros. Freeman has such a richly musical voice that he could read the phone book or yellow pages and be still entertaining viewers.

The whole thing looks like an improv exercise, but to what effect. At the peak of his career, Freeman doesn’t need to practice his skill in this kind of amateurish movie.

The gifted Bobby Cannavale (“The Station Agent”) adds some color to the proceedings early on, while Jonah Hill plays a character called The Kid, and Kumar Pallana is the Assistant Manager.

The picture’s title, borrowed from grocery stores’ signs, refers to Freeman’s lists of likes and dislikes.

Director of photography Phedon Papamichael, who has done great work in other films, must have been restricted here by the miniscule budget and the director’s lack of clear vision.

The movie will be distributed online by ClickStar, the joint venture between Intel Corp. and Freeman’s Revelations Entertainment, following what looks to be a very short theatrical release (sort of a warm-up).