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MOVIE REVIEW

A pleasant wait in the express lane

Blink and you'll miss "10 Items or Less," the sort of small affair a Hollywood director might put together on his weekend off. It's a sweet, calculated two-hander starring someone you know very well and someone you've never heard of but probably should, and it's mercifully short at 81 minutes -- any longer and the movie would start thinking it was art.

Morgan Freeman plays Him (no other name offered or, apparently, needed), a famous Hollywood actor who has been laying off for a few years and is now itching to get back in the game before he becomes irrelevant. He takes a part in a no-budget independent film -- presumably to reestablish his critical cred -- and, to research his role as the manager of a Latino supermarket in the middle of nowhere, he spends a day hanging out at a Latino supermarket in the middle of nowhere.

Here he meets Scarlet (Paz Vega) , the intemperate chica who mans the express lane, banished there for insubordination and for being smarter than anyone else in the place. The two while away the time insulting and slowly warming up to each other, and while romance is never in the cards -- he's not asking, she's not offering -- "10 Items or Less" addresses the sort of profound instant friendship that can turn up in movies and, occasionally, in the real world.

The film's so minuscule it can afford dramatic conflict for only one of its characters: Scarlet is applying for an office job, but she's ready to give up before she even gets to the interview. Freeman's character, by contrast, is one of life's optimists (he's a movie star; he can afford to be sunny) and he takes her defeatism as a personal challenge.

Retooling his acting philosophy to embrace personal growth, the star sets about giving Scarlet a physical and karmic makeover that includes possibly the first car wash the girl has ever known. ("It's a car," she protests. "It's an entrance," he responds.)

Freeman gets to take a break from playing God for once, and he's a sneaky joy. His character is Hollywood crunchy (he name-drops the Dalai Lama) and vain (watch his face when he comes across one of his cruddy Ashley Judd thrillers in the supermarket's remainder bin). But he knows he has been blessed by fortune and he loves what he does, and why shouldn't everyone be so lucky?

Vega, the Spanish actress seen here in "Spanglish" and the art - house hit "Sex and Lucia," has been around long enough for her to catch anything Freeman throws her, and the movie wisely underplays her carnal appeal (it's still there under the dowdy trimmings). "10 Items or Less" is nearly an acting class exercise, except for the fact that these two have long since graduated.

Writer-director Brad Silberling usually makes big Hollywood dramas ("City of Angels," "Moonlight Mile") or contraptions ("Casper," the Lemony Snicket movie), so this is his busman's holiday. It's a pleasant, occasionally touching diversion, but it's too glib to really stick to the ribs, and given a choice between an easy laugh and a rich one, Silberling usually opts for the former.

What he knows is the film industry and the ingrown silliness that can cling to it like barnacles. "10 Items or Less" -- its very title a rebuke to big-budget waste -- shows a studio director reverse-engineering an indie movie to see if he can figure out what makes it tick. What he comes up with is a tiny film featuring a big star playing a big star who's appearing in a tiny film. That's not a movie, that's a palindrome.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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