Slickly charming, genteelly erotic and directed with supreme polish, "Cashback" is a conventional romantic comedy that plays unconventional games with time and memory. Elaborating on his Oscar-nominated short of the same title, Brit filmmaker Sean Ellis reveals a gift for formal sleight-of-hand that's ultimately more dazzling than his patly amusing script. Though frank sexuality will limit audience scope, pic's kudo cachet and bankable title should earn worldwide distrib Gaumont some cashback of its own from savvy younger viewers.
Ellis' 2004 short, a fanciful 19-minute riff on how employees at a Blighty supermarket fight the boredom of an eight-hour shift, remains largely intact. In both films, Ben (Sean Biggerstaff, best known as Oliver Wood in the "Harry Potter" movies) is a gifted art student who imagines he has the ability to freeze time -- to make time go faster, paradoxically, by stopping it.
It's a clever meta-joke, then, that Ellis has successfully added time to "Cashback," giving Ben an extensive backstory and grafting a full-blown love story onto the proceedings. New material has Ben breaking up with girlfriend Suzy (Michelle Ryan) and developing chronic insomnia.
To put his sleepless hours to use, Ben goes to work at Sainsbury's grocery store, where he meets fellow employees Sharon (Emilia Fox); ace goofballs Barry and Matt (Michael Dixon, Michael Lambourne); and wannabe kung fu master Brian (Marc Pickering), who, along with Ben's annoying best friend Sean (Shaun Evans), reps one of the cast's few unnecessary additions.
It's here that Ben discovers his ability to stop time, a phenomenon that gives him a new appreciation for the beauty around him. The beauties in this supermarket readily identify pic as a supremely cushy male fantasy. Ben wanders the aisles of the store undressing the drop-dead gorgeous women around him -- photographed by Angus Hudson in unsparing detail -- then sketches their portraits.
As fantasies go, this one digests quite smoothly, especially when Ben's eye falls to rest on Sharon.
Ben's philosophical voiceover plays under nearly every minute of "Cashback" yet never becomes smothering. Biggerstaff gives a finely controlled, largely wordless performance that's well-matched by Fox's porcelain grace as the romantic interest. Stuart Goodwin provides contrast as their boisterous boss.
In the end, pic's ideas about art and love aren't much more than skin-deep, and third act goes through some unnecessary convolutions. Final shot, however, is a dazzler.
With immeasurable assistance from editors Scott Thomas and Carlos Domeque, Ellis is clearly having tremendous fun behind the camera, slowing down, speeding up and freezing the frame to highly entertaining effect. Flashbacks to Ben's childhood are introduced via seamless transitions that enhance pic's themes about the mutability of time.
Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Angus Hudson; editors, Scott Thomas, Carlos Domeque; music, Guy Farley; production designer, Morgan Kennedy; art director, Emma Jones; set decorator, Jackie Castelli; costume designer, Vicki Russell; sound (Dolby Digital), Jamie Gambell; stunt producer/arranger, Tom Aitken; line producer, Marshall Leviten; associate producer, Winnie Lee; assistant director, Steve Newton. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 22, 2006. Running time: 102 MIN.