Dec. 27, 2009
The Freshman (1990)
Grade: 70/100

Director: Andrew Bergman
Stars: Matthew Broderick, Marlon Brando, Penelope Ann Miller

What it's about. A screwball comedy in which first-billed screen legend Marlon Brando gets to send up his most famous role, that of Don Corleone in The Godfather. Matthew Broderick stars as Kellogg, a freshman film student fresh to New York City from Vermont. He is promptly identified as a mark by con artist Bruno Kirby, who manages to steal his wallet and luggage. Kellogg is further disheartened when eccentric film professor Paul Benedict (of "The Jeffersons" fame) tells him he must spend a small fortune on books.

Kellogg needs money fast. A chance reunion with Kirby leads to a part time job working for "importer" Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando), a wealthy godfather who controls unions, judges, senators, etc.

Kellogg suspects his new job involves illegal work. This is confirmed when his first task is to deliver a Komodo dragon, an endangered species, from the airport to celebrity chef Larry London (veteran actor Maximilian Schell). Sure enough, Kellogg is soon under surveillance from two corrupt Federal agents (Jon Piloto and Richard Gant). Kellogg's anxiety increases further when Carmine's hottie daughter (Penelope Ann Miller) takes a shine to him and proclaims that they are engaged.

Bert Parks shows up to lampoon his legacy of hosting Miss America pageants. Parks is backed up by alt rockers Was (Not Was). Frank Whaley plays Broderick's film nerd college roommate. B.D. Wong is London's effeminate assistant.

How others will see it. Some ill-chosen remarks by Brando during post-production interviews led critics to believe The Freshman would stink. It didn't help that the film had the temerity as choosing the same title as a classic Harold Lloyd movie (nonetheless, Kellogg's dorm room has a poster of Lloyd's biggest silent movie competitor, Buster Keaton).

Upon release, however, critics were pleased (Brando skates!). The film had middling box office success, but is generally well regarded, although men like it more than do women, perhaps because they find Miller's ebullient character unbelievable.

How I felt about it. The Freshman appears to be the only good movie ever made by its director and sole writer, Andrew Bergman. Bergman has made other movies, including such disasters as Striptease. It is unclear why the present delightful comedy is so much better than his other directorial efforts. It will probably remain a mystery, along with the appeal of old Hanna-Barbera Scooby Doo cartoons.

Perhaps it is the cast. Leads Brando, Broderick, and Miller are a few years too old for their roles, but nobody cares, and certainly the film would have to be rewritten if anyone else was in Brando's shoes.

At first, the story appears to be preposterous. What are the odds that Kellogg would see Kirby again, in New York City, within days after his robbery? Why do Brando and his heart-melting daughter fawn over the clueless Broderick? Only in a movie could a Komodo dragon invade a shopping mall.

But as the story plays out, it all begins to make sense. And it is funny all along, even before the pieces fit together. The real question is, which supporting actor is the funniest? Our money is on Paul Benedict, the obnoxious and pretentious film professor.