The protagonist of Sean Ellis' Cashback sees work as a form of trade. "I give them 8 hours, they give me money." This raises a similar question about the watching of movies: we give the enigmatic "them" two hours of our time, and in return what we receive can range from an enlightening moral awakening about humanity to propaganda and everything left, right and in between. That we are never sure what to expect from a movie is part of what makes each fresh viewing so seductive.
Ellis' Oscar-nominated short film Cashback was extended into a feature length film less than two years after production, and if you look at these two together, it's impossible to tell the difference, to the point where I can only think that shots from the short were inserted and mildly tweaked into the feature film (the same cast and crew is used for both films). They both tell the same story, of an art student who develops insomnia after the break-up of his recent relationship and while working the night shift at a supermarket, finds a sort of magic in everything around him, from a spilled package of peas to his co-worker Sharon, while flashing back to the moments in his life which would shape his desire towards women. But despite being nearly shot-for-shot similar, the difference in length is where this difference is most noticable: While the short at 18 minutes packs just enough laughs and character introductions to make for an amiable pilot for a TV show (how anyone could expand the story each week is someone else's problem), but as a feature Ellis seems to have been in a same dream-like state in the writing stage in the same why his protagonist is--and that compliment is only a back-handed one.
Ellis' visual style, though perhaps stealing a page from a famous scene of Tim Burton's Big Fish in its depiction of time slowing down or completely stopping, is lovely. Even in a setting as mundane as a supermarket, the colors are saturated as though they came from a Wong Kar-Wai film (the usage of the exact same recording of the phenomenal opera piece"Casta Diva" proves Ellis has viewed the master's 2046). Some of the time-manipulation scenes are quite beautiful, especially the final scene when used as a declaration of love, but these scenes happen so frequently that after the second time the magic wears off and questions about this space-time continuum arise (is the sleep-deprived Ben Willis simply imagining this or is he actually walking through the world as time stops? Ellis never seemed to have made up his mind about this and created plot holes in the process). In the most well-known of these time-manipulation scenes which appears as the film's poster, Ben stops time so he can draw nude women shopping in the supermarket by undressing them in the middle of the shampoo isles. Despite narrating about his love of the female form (he's an art student, after all!) deriving from a Swedish nudist roommate as a youngster, by the time this scene is over you mostly just wonder how this guy ever got laid in the first place when he takes advantage of women's bodies with this "superpower."
Alas, as a story is often told in film criticism, the beautiful visuals nearly overshadow a lacking script, but not quite enough. Extending a short film into a feature can give a filmmaker more time to shape the characters, but this attempt is quite lackluster--the protagonist, perhaps because of his insomnia, is quite pedestrian at best and there is nothing registered in his face to suggest anything is at stake in this young man's life. There's a colorful cast of supporting characters, but none of them are developed to be anything beyond brief comedic relief, and none are ever truly funny at that. Throwaway moments, including the manager giving an inappropriate touch to the beautiful Sharon, could have been a glimpse into these people's histories but do not appear again in the remainder of the film and makes their very inclusion seem more important than they actually are. The best performance comes from Emilia Fox as Sharon, Ben's love interest, whose role is nearly a Xeroxed copy of Pam from "The Office," but Fox shades the role with enough nuances to elevate her thin role to something more deft than the rest of the cast can manage (the fact that she's very beautiful doesn't hurt, either).
While Ellis' film urges looking closer at the beauty in every day life, it's strange to write that Ellis never slows down enough to have this beauty develop organically in front of the camera; Ben's flashbacks alone take up about 1/3 of the movie, which is the same amount of time we spend in our lives sleeping. The result is a film which is much more slower than it should be, and which, despite all its good qualities which I hope Ellis will overcome in subsequent projects, was ultimately not worth my invested 2 hours.
But enough with this; it's 11:53 pm and I'd rather be dreaming.