Free Samples opens with Jesse Eisenberg wearing a cowboy hat in a dive bar, even though he wears it more like a fedora. This image immediately raises any number of questions, but as to why he's drinking there is very little mystery: Jillian (Jess Weixler), the messy blonde in the gin next to him, may be the most unpleasant person currently living. A recent law school dropout, Jillian is pouty, petulant and, worst of all, she's the protagonist. The brunt of the film involves Jillian manning a friend's ice cream truck as a sudden favor, offering free samples (hey!) of ice cream to a parade of strangers who essentially exist to personify her quarter-life crisis. A deeply unpleasant micro-budget indie that has no clue how to extrapolate a single location into an entire feature, Free Samples is an ugly bit of work, trapping its talented cast in a series of numbing two-shots that cut together like a montage of favors gone wrong. Fortunately for all involved, brutal reviews should limit exposure, with a limited VOD release being the most likely endgame.
Jillian has a hangover and a sense of humor that would feel asinine in a high school variety show, but the good news is that only one of those things is permanent. Jillian's friend Nancy (Halley Feiffer, here reunited with The Squid and the Whale co-star Eisenberg) asks her to take her shift manning a "Mike's Dream Ice Cream" truck for the day for the not at all arbitrary reason that her grandfather is having a bypass. Before the film is 10 minutes old, Jillian is buried in an endless series of encounters with appropriately forgettable single-serving characters. Entirely filmed behind the dumpster that's behind that diner in Mulholland Drive, Free Samples provides a cross-section of L.A. that includes such lovable types as hippie with bongo, teenage twins who are teenaged and also twins, scruffy alcoholic wearing beanie, etc... Josh Ritter even pees on a couch!
And Jillian sasses them all. She has three flavors of ice cream: Chocolate, vanilla and sass, and she's all out of chocolate and vanilla. And the sass has gone bad. She's on a break from her fiancée, 30 is right around the corner, and somehow this is supposed to be the day that she figures her whole life out. Forced into a veritable gauntlet of altruism, Jillian is tasked with giving something away for nothing; Mike's Dream Ice Cream becomes a rather clumsy metaphor for why you shouldn't spend your entire existence being a bitch. When Eisenberg's character reappears to relate a story about souls leaving their bodies, Free Samples becomes a full-bore philosophical treatise, effectively doing for secular metaphysics what The Boondock Saints did for Catholicism.
As with so many films in the year 2012, Free Samples' sole saving grace is a cameo appearance by Hollywood icon Tippi Hedren (it's easy to snipe that she's fallen a long way since Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, but it's just as accurate to say that she's fallen a long way since James Nguyen's Birdemic). Hedren riffs on herself as an aged and semi-forgotten movie star who arrives in the nick of time to offer Jillian some much-needed wisdom (when Jillian posits that retirement is a reward for a life well-lived, Hedren responds: "Who's had one of those?"). Their scenes together are as clichéd and first-level as anything else in the film, but Hedren delicately wraps the dialogue in a gauze of her own experience, imbuing the clunky lines with a sincerity missing from the rest of Jim Beggarly's script.
Unfortunately, "Free Samples" is as incapable as its protagonist when it comes to recognizing a good thing, and the film would rather be recklessly episodic than keep Tippi Hedren around. So it's back to Jillian and her Quixotic quest to realize that her life's greatest fortune is that she's the worst person in it. Given the recent spate of micro-features that have dominated the year's festival circuit, it's no surprise that Jillian's journey is a mere 80 minutes long, but only about three of them are interesting. Weixler is better than this, Josh Ritter is better than this (though it's nice to see him finally realize his potential as the lovechild that Josh Hartnett and Charlie Day never had), and Miranda July is much better than this, so it might be best to decline "Free Samples" in favor of her spiritually similar film, "The Future." In fact, I suspect the filmmakers themselves are better than this, as well -- an indie script so profoundly unready to be shot often rushes into production because the stars align on their own schedule. So grant "Free Samples" the same pity that it seeks for its heroine and wait for the next taste, because, as hard as it might be to remember after seeing this film, people really do have a lot to offer if you're willing to give them a shot.
Cast: Jess Weixler, Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Ritter, Halley Feiffer, Tippi Hedren
Director: Jay Gammill
Screenwriter: Jim Beggarly
Producer: Eben Kostbar, Joseph McKelheer
Running time: 80 min.
Release date: TBD