‘Free Time’ Review: A Clever New York Indie Comedy Highlighting Gen Z Malaise

It’s probably an overstatement to call writer-director Ryan Martin Brown’s feature debut, Free Time, a “generation-defining movie.” Shot in 10 days with a cast of relative unknowns, the micro-budget comedy has more or less passed under the radar, premiering at a bunch of midlevel festivals and receiving a limited release in select U.S. cities. (It’s currently playing the Quad in N.Y. and the Landmark Westwood in L.A.)

And yet there’s something very much of the now in this cleverly concocted and occasionally hilarious tale of Generation Z malaise, which follows a disgruntled 20-something office worker who quits his job to join the post-pandemic great resignation, only to realize he has no idea what to do with himself once he’s out of work. Clocking in at a breezy 78 minutes, it’s the kind of down-and-dirty NYC indie we see less and less of nowadays, at a time when indie film itself seems to be in great peril.

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Over a decade ago, works like Free Time were a dime a dozen. Starting in the mid-aughts, movies such as Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, Aaron Katz’s Quiet City, Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture and Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel formed the crux of a New York film scene populated by hipsters and stretching from downtown Manhattan to Park Slope. But then rents exploded during the Bloomberg years and aspiring artists got priced out of town, with many more abandoning the city during a long and devastating pandemic from which New York hasn’t yet fully recovered, either economically or psychologically.

It’s during the post-COVID period that Martin Brown sets his shaggy dog story, which sits somewhere between early Woody Allen and a few of the mumblecore flicks mentioned above. Indeed, with its cast of assorted Brooklyn characters — many of them played by standup and improv comics — and its nonstop passive-aggressive ambiance, Free Time could be part of a new movement that’s perhaps best described as “vocal fry-core.” Meanwhile, the film’s narcissistic antihero, Drew (winningly played by Colin Burgess, who is a video editor at The Hollywood Reporter), looks like a modern-day Groucho Marx, albeit with wire-rimmed glasses and a selection of ironic vintage t-shirts tucked into his jeans, which are always a size too short.

Eternally unsatisfied, Drew works a soul-sucking data entry job that, in the movie’s opening scene, he winds up quitting either out of spite or because he fails to negotiate a promotion with his tough boss (James Webb). When he gets back to his Brooklyn brownstone, Drew proudly tells his roommate (Rajat Suresh) — who sits glued to his laptop all day as a paid clickbait writer — that he finally understands what capitalism is all about and is now prepared to live a life free from meaningless wage slavery.

But Drew has few friends, not to mention any kind of romantic partner, so he doesn’t do much after he quits except lie around all day watching the same movie in bed, before getting high on edibles and going barhopping on his own. At best, he’s hoping to pursue his side-career as a keyboardist in a local band, but when he shows up for rehearsal after a long hiatus, he learns the lead singer has switched genres to country.

The music sequences are among the film’s funniest, filled with awkward tension that bubbles up as Drew begins to realize the band doesn’t want him around anymore. His other encounters hardly go better, whether at a party where he’s clearly unwelcome — a memorable shot has him standing in the kitchen with two other dudes staring at their phones — or back at his former job, where he tries and staggeringly fails to get rehired under a fake name.

It’s hard to rally behind a guy who’s totally full of himself and totally unable to read the signs that everyone’s sending him, and yet Drew winds up becoming a hero in his own right, in an amusing turn of events (not worth spoiling here) that says much about the crisis America is in right now.

Although it’s not exactly a satire, Free Time offers up a sly commentary on a generation — in this specific case, a college-educated white one — that refuses to pursue the hard-knocks financial goals of previous generations but doesn’t really know what else to pursue either, while striving to afford a lifestyle that’s become more expensive than ever before.

That Drew tries to save his own skin in the end is no major surprise, and like any New Yorker he’s going to do whatever he can to survive. What’s fascinating about Martin Brown’s keenly observed and amusing debut is the twist it offers on the famous Big Apple adage that, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere: What does that even mean anymore, if making it means being gainfully employed but still miserable and relatively broke?

Unlike Woody Allen’s ode to his hometown, Manhattan, there are no fireworks at the start of Free Time and there’s no sad, sweeping romance at the end, but rather the acknowledgement that joining the daily grind may be the best the city now has to offer.

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