Magnolia Pictures // 2006 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // July 24th, 2007
Sometimes love is hiding between the seconds of your life.
In 2004 Sean Ellis wrote and directed an 18-minute short film,?"Cashback." The story was simple: a supermarket employee struggles to make it through his deadly boring eight-hour graveyard shift. He distracts himself by stopping time and ogling the naked bodies of the supermarket's female customers. Though its premise seems puerile, the film was stylish and charming and earned a handful of awards from film festivals and an Oscar nomination for best short film, live action. Using the leverage of strong critical response, Ellis was able to secure funding to shoot a feature-length version of "Cashback."
After sulky art student Ben (Sean Biggerstaff, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), breaks up with Suzy (Michelle Ryan, Eastenders), his girlfriend of two-and-a-half years, he falls into a depression that prevents him from being able to sleep for weeks on end. With nothing better to do at night, Ben takes a job as a clerk on the graveyard shift at a local supermarket. In an effort to pass the time during his eight-hour shift, Ben begins stopping time and undressing the female shoppers. However, Ben does not fondle these women's naked bodies; he is an artist, and quietly appreciates the female form.
Slowly, Ben begins falling for Sharon (Emilia Fox), a fetching co-worker. However, he still may not be recovered from his break-up with Suzy; and, after spending increasingly longer periods of time in an inanimate world, he may not be ready for a live-action girlfriend.
When I first got my video iPod I downloaded several short films and television shows off the iTunes music store and watched them on my daily subway commute to work. My memories of what I watched in those early, heady days are hazy, but I clearly remember the astounding short film, "Cashback" (and not just because I was watching a film with nudity while in a public place). Sean Ellis's short film works perfectly as a plotless snapshot of an aimless young man working in a menial job. When I heard Ellis was expanding his short into a feature, I was intrigued, but wary. There seemed to be few strands in the film's story that could be developed it into a feature. Therefore, it is greatly to Ellis's credit that he was able to almost seamlessly weave an additional 70 minutes around his original 18-minute short (all of which has ?been incorporated into the full-length Cashback). However, much of the magic captured in the original dissipated over an hour ?and a half, making the film only a mildly ambitious, yet disappointingly conventional love story, rather than a unique viewing ?experience.
The film's strengths are obvious: a unique visual style; beautiful score; a laconic, dryly humorous voice over; and of course, the conceit of an art student who stops time to study women's naughty bits. This is more than enough to create a brilliant short film. And at times, particularly in the full-length film's first half, Cashback continues to entertain and enrapture the audience. However, Ellis seems unable to maintain his distinct tone, and is largely thrown off his game by a lackluster romance and insipid supporting characters.
But it is not just the conventional romance at the center of Cashback that is so disappointing. There is nothing inherently wrong with conventional love stories, especially if they have a unique style -- as Cashback certainly does -- and likeable characters, a score on which the film is slightly less successful. Indeed, the movie is hurt most by a series of all too conventional characters and plot twists, which undermine the uniqueness of the Cashback's style and understated love story. There is also a sloppiness in the storytelling, and this lack of attention to detail seems especially jarring in contrast to the film's sharply stylized production. For example, Ben suffers from a near-paralyzing depression after breaking up with his girlfriend, Suzy. However, in the film's opening scene, Ben dumps her. Now I understand that both individuals in a relationship are often hurt by a breakup, but why not simply have Suzy dump Ben? Additionally, there are a series of events towards the film's conclusion that seem awkwardly contrived to reach an ending that doesn't even feel genuine in the first place.
Perhaps worse than all are some of the stock supporting characters. Ben's best friend from art school is a one-note obnoxious lech, a character far more common in mediocre sitcoms than in earnest independent films. And one of Ben's co-workers is a quiet, karate aficionado whose love for martial arts is played up to the level of burlesque; it wasn't funny to begin with, and this single joke is constantly mined throughout the film. To get an idea of how annoying this character is, imagine the pirate guy from Dodge Ball placed in a Whit Stillman film. These two characters both sound profoundly discordant notes in a movie that has no need for their unfunny shtick.
I read that in order to accommodate the varying schedules of the actors from the short film, Ellis was forced to write the feature-length script in seven days. While that sort of prolific output is impressive, the haste shows. This is especially troubling because the movie does express healthy doses of wit, intelligence, and originality. Cashback announces a new talent, but I'm not sure if there's any reason why one should choose to watch the feature film instead of the superior short.
Director Sean Ellis seems to share his protagonist's keen eye for the beauty in everyday life. For a film with nondescript sets, Cashback is a visually stunning film, and the picture on the DVD does a great job presenting most scenes in clear, bright tones; I thought I noticed a slight reduction in quality in the held-over scenes from the short film, but the difference is not too distracting. As far as extras go, there is a slight making-of featurette and the 18-minute, Oscar-nominated short.
In an increasingly common marketing tactic, Cashback is being released on DVD and in the cinemas at approximately the same time. I don't know if that makes much financial sense, but I think it's kind of cool (I find my living room much more comfortable than the average movie-theater seat).
Sean Ellis' great talent was on full display in "Cashback," the short film, while many of his flaws are exposed in the full-length version. Still, he's clearly got a unique voice and sensibility, and I am eagerly looking forward to his next movie.
Guilty of mucking up an earnest story about appreciating the female form with a few one-note supporting characters and an underdeveloped second half.
Review content copyright © 2007 Brendan Babish; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Making of Cashback
* Academy Award-nominated short film, "Cashback"
* Official Site