FRESHMAN, THE(director/writer: Andrew Bergman; cinematographer: William A. Fraker; editor: Barry Malkin; music: David Newman; cast: Marlon Brando (Carmine Sabatini), Matthew Broderick (Clark Kellogg), Bruno Kirby (Victor Ray), Penelope Ann Miller (Tina Sabatini), Frank Whaley (Steve Bushak), Jon Polito (Chuck Greenwald), Paul Benedict (Arthur Fleeber), Richard Gant (Lloyd Simpson), Bert Parks (Himself), Ken Welsh (Dwight Armstrong), Maximilian Schell (Larry London), B. D. Wong (Edward); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Michael Lobell; TriStar Pictures; 1990)
“A truly genial and delightful comedy.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A truly genial and delightful comedy written and directed by Andrew Bergman (screenwriter for “Blazing Saddles”). It lightly spoofs the gangster genre film conventions and saves some sarcasm for film academia and its more inauspicious pretensions. Gargantuan star Marlon Brando successfully relives his Godfather role, while Matthew Broderick uses his boyish charm to be perfect as Brando’s innocent foil.
Nice-guy Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick) lives with his dreaded stepfather Dwight Armstrong (Welsh) and mother in the rural Vermont town of Putney. His poet/teacher real dad died when he was six from a motorcycle accident, and the uptight lawyer stepfather could never get over as a real father to the sensitive youngster in his charge. The aspiring filmmaker Clark travels to NYC to attend as a freshman the NYU Film School, but when arriving at Grand Central station a smooth-talking hustler, Victor Ray (Bruno Kirby), rips off his luggage and money in no time flat. This causes friction with his egotistical film-loving faculty advisor Arthur Fleeber (Paul Benedict), because he can’t come up with the $700 needed for text books. When during that office visit Clark spots Victor on the street, he gives chase and corners him in his Little Italy neighborhood. The hustler unable to return the money then talks the kid into accepting a soft part-time job with his uncle, Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando).
The naive Clark meets Victor’s uncle in his social club, while failing to fully realize it’s an obvious mafia establishment. There’s a picture of Mussolini on the wall that’s amusingly explained by the don as not political but kept there for reasons of nostalgia for the old days. Carmine looks just like Don Vito Corleone of “The Godfather,” and plays this role the same way but with a fresh viewpoint and added wit that seamlessly fits this narrative. The distraught kid is charmed and awed by Carmine, and is shocked thinking he’s talking to the famous movie don. But he’s reluctant to take on his first errand until assured it’s legit. Clark has to pick up a big package at the airport and drop it off in New Jersey, whereby he’ll be paid $500. A ‘handshake of friendship’ from Carmine convinces him to accept the generous offer he could hardly refuse.
Carmine takes a shine to Clark and invites him over to his Queens house, but is absent. Instead his pretty young daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller) is there to welcome Clark and take him on a tour of the elegant European-styled house, where a man with a rifle is posted on the balcony. To Clark’s surprise he learns the real Mona Lisa is hanging in Carmine’s house, while the Louvre has the fake one. In the background Nat King Cole is singing “Mona Lisa” on the stereo system. Tina then makes it plain she desires Clark, kissing him and saying she can’t wait till she meets him again.
The errand involves Clark delivering an endangered species, a giant lizard from Borneo (known as a Komodo dragon), to inspired madman chef Larry London’s (Maximilian Schell, who is hilarious) New Jersey farm and wild animal preserve. Soon a panicky Clark finds he’s being tailed by two Justice Department undercover agents (Jon Polito and Richard Gant), and his life becomes agonizingly similar to the Godfather movie.
Bergman keeps things moving along at a breezy pace until the carefully worked out conclusion in the cornfieldssmoothly resolves all the plot confusion in a logical way. At Carmine’s “gourmet club,” the don and his crew match wits with the Fish and Wildlife agents tailing him. One of the film’s highlights is of Bert Parks serenading the “gourmet club” wealthy patrons with a strange version of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” Another great highlight has the NYU teacher in a class lecture waxing poetic on Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II, while Tina visits the class and strongly suggests to the agreeable cowering teacher that he better give Clark an A even though he hates him.
The plot is filled with wonderful surprises; the laughs keep coming; and the cast all give terrific performances. It’s an overlooked film that somehow or other got in under the radar and never scored at the box office. The Freshman has my voluntary recommendation.
REVIEWED ON 7/25/2004 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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