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The Freshman (1990)

by on 2011/09/17

“Now you’re speaking in generalities.”

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I have a confession to make: I was not very familiar with The Godfather when I originally saw The Freshman. While these works stand apart in every official capacity, they are nonetheless as tied together by an oddly-familiar character as by the actor who plays him. I didn’t know it then, but Marlon Brando’s Carmine Sabatini is the perfect accompaniment to a serving of his Vito Corleone.

What I did know was production had wrapped in Toronto, and that cantankerous rascal Brando (One-Eyed Jacks, Superman) went public with his criticism of the movie. It must have been a slow news day, because his opinion made the rounds like wildfire.

Then of greater interest to me was “Ferris Bueller” (Matthew Broderick) had had another adventure, this time in my town.

The adventure in question is a heist, a con, screwball comedy, or mob parody. It’s an unromantic romance, unless you count the rapport between Brando and Broderick. A new film school student arrives in New York and is promptly coerced into crime.

Bruno Kirby (When Harry Met Sally) plays the shady coercer; Frank Whaley (Swimming with Sharks) appears as a neurotic fellow student; Paul Benedict (This Is Spinal Tap) is hilarious as the self-involved Professor Fleeber; Penelope Ann Miller (Carlito’s Way) shines as Sabatini’s alluring daughter; Maximilian Schell (Vampires) and B.D. Wong (Jurassic Park) chew scenery as eccentric members of Carmine’s inner circle; Kenneth Welsh (Smallville’s “Lexmas”) adds ironic menace as a ruthless animal rights activist.

As I watched, I was struck by parallel reactions: delight at the amusement the players provided, and regret that so many of them had since died. Fortunately, their talents were enough to keep me on the happier side of my mind. From beginning to end, I was almost always entertained. I recall only one scene testing my patience, in which the two students pursue an escaped lizard through a shopping mall.

That scene pushed my tolerance for farce just a bit. I found my thoughts wandering, and I recalled a documentary I’d seen recently: David Attenborough’s Life on the BBC. It suggested Komodo Dragons are fearsome things, and I wondered how the cast and crew had been affected here. How stressful had the wrangling become? Was its toxic bite negatable? Was it angry being strapped to the seat? How bad did that vomit smell? And why on Earth would anyone want to eat one, let alone pay to do so?

My attention returned in time. I loved how everyone observed that Carmine resembled someone, their connection interrupted nearly instantly, a possible legal feint. I liked to imagine they were as likely to say “Marlon Brando” as “The Godfather”.

In fact, I felt rather fortunate this confection existed at all, a modest labour of love, and no grandiose artistry or big-budget blockbuster. An unassuming comedy caper had attracted such cross-generational legends, who then elevated it all to something exceptional.

Even my experience of watching it was unusual. It rarely happens I don’t take notes when watching a video anymore. This time, I simply lost myself in enjoyment, abandoning critical thought. I recommend it wholeheartedly, especially to fans of a certain Coppola feature.

And to those Godfather fans who approach The Freshman with haughty, elitist disdain, I’d suggest you are no less myopic than Professor Fleeber. You’ll need to see this one yourself to understand what I mean.

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Rated PG

102 minutes

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