Stylish 'Cashback' pays off, but at a slight discount

Posted: July 20, 2007

Cashback, from the British fashion photographer and commercials/video director Sean Ellis, is a sleek little meditation on beauty, desire, love and time. Now and then, it's fairly sophisticated stuff.

At other nows and thens, however, this U.K. indie - which began life as an 18-minute short - is little more than a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age comedy, driven by hormones and hoary gags, with the usual assortment of sex-obsessed lunkhead pals, doofus coworkers, a stripper and the lot.

Some of this can be pinned on Cashback's barely post-adolescent protagonist, Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff, also known as Oliver Wood in the first two Harry Potter pics). He's a college art student who's split with his girlfriend and, suffering chronic insomnia, goes to work at an all-night supermarket. There, between moping and mopping up, he studies the (beautiful) women doing their shopping. Suddenly, like a still life (or a still photo), his subjects become motionless. Ben can move around, but the world surrounding him has stopped. He can undress the women and draw them like artists' models in a studio - except the artist here is a stockboy, working the soups and vegetables aisle.

Narrated by its star, with bits of flashback and musings about books, about art, about memory - and about capturing a moment in time - Cashback isn't as deep as it pretends to be. But Ellis gets the mind-numbing routine and dopey camaraderie of folks stuck in a nowhere job with humor and accuracy, and the filmmaker certainly captures the mesmerizing, mysterious, erotic beauty of the female form.

As best I can determine, Cashback is the only partially Oscar-nominated film in Academy Awards history. That is, Ellis' "Cashback" short has been seamlessly integrated into the feature itself, with preceding and ensuing narratives built around the 18-minute piece. Good trick.


Cashback *** (out of four stars)

Directed and written by Sean Ellis, distributed by Magnolia Pictures. With Sean Biggerstaff, Emilia Fox, Michelle Ryan and Shaun Evans.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.

Parent's guide: R (nudity, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.

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