Cashback (2006) / Comedy-Romance

MPAA Rated: R for graphic nudity, sexual content and language
Running time: 98 min.

Cast: Sean Biggerstaff, Emilia Fox, Shaun Evans, Michelle Ryan, Stuart Goodwin, Michael Dixon, Michael Lambourne, Marc Pickering, Nick Hancock
Director: Sean Ellis
Screenplay: Sean Ellis

Review published July 16, 2007

In my opinion, Cashback is the finest romantic comedy for the 20-something crowd since the similarly-executed Garden State (in fact, some might even think it slightly better), and equally introspective in terms of the dissection of the mindset of its male protagonist and the anguish he feels at not being able to channel his love into a willing recipient.  It is a bit bawdier, and often encroaches into American Pie territory with its characters and situations (fart gags, sex toys, and strippers), but yet still done with maturity, assuredness, and profundity. 

The film starts of with hapless art school student Ben (Biggerstaff, The Winter Guest) breaking up with his girlfriend (Ryan, Mansfield Park) in the heat of an argument that he is still reeling from, further worsened by the sight of her taking up with a new boyfriend in school.  The heartache is too much to bear, and he wants her back, but she won't have it.  The anguish causes him to have insomnia that has lasted weeks. 

As he has nothing better to do with his time, Ben decides to get cash back for his time by working the late night shift at a local supermarket, where he has some adjustment issues, including staring off into space and fancying himself able to stop time, a trick he uses to get the more fetching female customers in states of undress for his admiration.  Ben finds other avenues for his need to love someone, most notably in his coworker, Sharon (Fox, Free Jimmy), although he's never quite able to get in synch with her.  Even though she shows signs of possible interest, he remains stagnant, and even sees her going out with one of his boisterously immature coworkers. 

This is the second time that writer-director Sean Ellis has made Cashback, with the first effort two years before when he made it as an 18-minute short film.  The short was very well received, even garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.  This full-length version incorporates the short into its length, and adds about another 90 minutes to it to tell the full story of Ben, his loves, his losses, and his career issues. 

Although, at its core story, Cashback is a typical formula romantic comedy, where it separates from the pack is in the delivery, which injects little bits of art in between the straightforward story of a guy trying to find love among the beautiful women that pass him by.  One mechanism Ellis uses to achieve this is by having Ben able to stop time, a power that we readily assume he possesses, if only in his thoughts, acting as a metaphor for his state of mind. 

Ben wishes that he can stop time so that he can savor those little moments when he sees an object of desire, to be able to examine it, study it, and digest it, but time just moves too quickly, and he is afraid of incurring any more pain.  It's also about finding beauty in everyday things, which is the impetus for many artists in pursuing their craft, capturing still-life portraits so that they might be admired in the state which they found them forever.

Ellis's film's scale might be small but it has a surprising depth to it, as it weaves in and out of fantasy mode seamlessly within the narrative itself.  The tampering of reality by Ben doesn't feel like a gimmick in the slightest, and in fact, adds greatly to the romance and comedy that brings forth some of the more poignant moments of the film.  There is a great deal of nudity in the film, but tastefully executed and never shamefully gratuitous.  The showcasing of the naked female form is a very important part of the what is going on in Ben's mind that drives him to do everything that he does.

Fine performances abound, which goes to show that the most important element of romantic comedies might very well be the casting.  We genuinely like Ben as portrayed by Biggerstaff, and want him to be happy.  What beauty he sees in the women around him we also see, as we fall for them right along with him, mostly because we think they might be a good fit.  As Zach Braff had done with the aforementioned Garden State, Ellis certainly knows how to use music to accentuate mood, although he does step up the cinematic resonance by also utilizing camera techniques to go along with the overall vibe of each scene.

For all of the praise I am bestowing on Cashback, I'm hesitant to go overboard, though there really isn't anything I disliked about it.  This is a good romantic comedy with moments of greatness, but I don't think I'd go the distance by proclaiming it a great film in totality.  There is an inherent predictability and derivativeness at its core that firmly grounds it to its genre, though there are definitely moments when it escapes its confines for a bit to explore some very worthwhile flashbacks and ripples in temporal manipulation.  It sometimes strives just for laughs, such as a fairly superfluous football (soccer) game where the boys get trounced, but these indulgences earn some choice humor.  Wherever Ellis takes us, we're willing to go, primarily because every frame seems to be inspired from personal experience and perspective, whether crass, funny, or erudite in tone.

Cashback earns its laughs, and does feature a very sweet romance that bubbles under the surface, which makes it a very good example of how to make a conventional romantic comedy with personal vision and creative flair.  If only other filmmakers would realize that the key to a quality rom-com lies with our ability to relate to the situations and feelings of the people in the middle of the relationship, seeing the humor of their foibles and the heart-wrenching emotions of the downturns.  We see the ups and the downs, the smiles and the tears, the angst and the embraces.  Even if the stories are all similar, each person's story in unique, so when a filmmaker invests this much of himself into his work, the result pays off for the rest of us who can relate.  Like its title suggests, whatever money you pay for the ticket or rental, in addition to your time, will be rewarded with plenty of amusement and choice reflections on our own lives, both in and out of love.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo