The Freshman (1990)
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Although not a revolutionary, what makes "The Freshman" such a classic on its own is that it accomplishes a real miracle by resuscitating Vito Corleone, his name is Carmine Sabatini, but the movie can't fool us, the guy IS Vito Corleone. As explained in the film, Sabatini's the one who inspired Vito's character, in other words, "The Freshman" is so confident over its comical premise, and rightfully so, that it doesn't even hesitate to insert several references to "The Godfather". And these are not just gratuitous 'Godfather' references thrown away for the sake of it, it's important to know that it's not a parallel world where the movie isn't supposed to exist. On the contrary, not only it does, but whoever sees Carmine Sabatini, has the most natural reaction by immediately thinking of Vito Corleone. The movie, in a way, asks the question, how any of us would react in front of a movie character. How would I if I met my favorite character? I guess, probably like Clark Kellog, Matthew Broderick as a film college student, the titular "Freshman".
And the deserved praises on Brando's performance shouldn't diminish Broderick's talent at all. With his awkward youngish look, Broderick is the perfect straight-man for a comical duo with Brando. Indeed, the comedic power of "The Freshman" relies on the extraordinary ability of Brando to play his character seriously in a non-serious film. Consequently, we don't laugh at Brando because he's too believable (we'd never treat him so disrespectfully), but at Broderick's disbelief. There's one part where Carmine offers a job to Clark, and gives him the hand of friendship as a solemn promise that no harm would happen to him. 'How can I say no?' replies Clark, to which Carmine dryly retorts 'that's not a yes, I want to hear yes', he takes a walnut from a prop and break it with his own hand, making a threatening sound. This improvisation, proving that Brando didn't lose his acting instinct and trademark use of props in movie scenes, provoked an even more genuine reaction from Broderick, who didn't know the walnut had already been broken before the shooting.
Clark had no choice but say yes, after all, isn't Vito Corleone, the man who makes offers we can't refuse? The film's funniest moments are driven by Sabantini's aura and Clark's incapability to control the situation or to say 'no'. The script finds the perfect tone to show a guy screwed but in a way that inspires our sympathy without feeling antipathy toward Sabatini. And another triumph on the writing department is the way everything seems believable despite all the zany material it employs. Whether it's a picture of Mussolini in an Italian Social club, an espresso that takes three spoons of sugar, the Mona Lisa painting in Carmine's house, and a weird traffic involving a Komodo dragon, I wonder why I wanted to believe that, the first time I saw it. Maybe I was just a 10-year old kid who just laughed at the gags without looking too much deeper into it. The irony is that after watching 'The Godfather' so many times, I believed in Sabatini even more.
That's not to say that it takes to be a 'Godfather' fan to enjoy the film, but it sure helps and not just for laughs. There is a heart in this film, and there is something very nostalgic, almost poignant to see Sabatini interacting with Clark. Sabatini is so sweet you'd forget he's a dangerous person. Brando finds the perfect note because he makes Sabatini lovable, while Vito was feared and respected, the way he treats Clark like the son he never had, his unexpected outburst of joy or sadness, his tender kisses or slaps in the face are all expression of a sincere love. Yes, we laugh when he never remembers Clark's hometown ("You're from Connecticut" he joyfully says, as if it meant something), when he calls him "Kent" instead of "Clark", or casually tells him that he'll marry his beautiful daughter Tina (Penelop Ann Mirren), but we still take him seriously because we never see when he's acting and when he's serious. And it doesn't really matter since in both cases, it's funny.
But I make the film sound like the 'Brando' show, while it features a great cast of supporting characters, notably, Bruno Kirby as Vic the streetwise nephew who emphasizes the importance of every word said by his Carmine. Maximilan Schells steals the show as a demented German chef. You would probably notice Frank Whaley, the 'what?' man from "Pulp Fiction" as Clark's slick roommate. The film makes many references to "The Godfather" series, an apparent favorite of as Clark's teacher, the goofy monomaniacal Pr. Fleeber (Paul Benedict). Interestingly, the film was released the same year than the last opus of the trilogy, but I see it more as a coincidence, since the film is much more a reminder of how iconic the first two were.
"The Freshman" is still a delightful comedy, cleverly written, with the perfect dosage of verbal humor and slapstick, the journey featuring the Komodo dragon would be seen as an oddity considering the film's context, but it totally makes sense at the end. Eveyrthing brilliantly tie up at the end, even the weird affection between Sabatini and Kellon, the little spice that gives this film, its unique flavor ... with basil cream sauce.
Everyone is perfectly suited to his role and even Brando appears to be having a lot of fun with his own image. The supporting cast is worth mentioning - especially Paul Benedict as an obnoxious college professor, and Maximillian Shell as a business associate of Carmine Sabatini.
This is ultimately a touching movie about loyalty and family, and it sure is fun.
You even get to see the Mona Lisa if you watch this movie!
Broderick is Clark Kellog (whom Sabatini calls "Kent"), a naif just in from Vermont to attend film school at NYU. Sabatini is the "importer" he works for and a ringer for "The Godfather." (The original was almost a self parody.) Those are the principal roles and Broderick handles the role of straight man, being sucked into a Mafia-like existence, competently. Brando is unforgettable. He tried one or two comedies before and they tanked, but he's a winner here, cracking walnuts in his fist, weeping with emotion as he embraces his new employee.
But it's not just the relationship between Clark and Sabatini that's amusing. It's also just about everything in between, including what we see of the film school, where the professor assigns seven hundred dollars worth of his own books as required reading, and is working on a paper that will combine -- what was it? -- Plato, Marx, and semiotics in a deconstruction of "The Godfather", or something equally insane? Maximilian Schell is a much under-rated or unnoticed actor. He consistently turns in riveting performances but has never achieved major stardom. It doesn't matter whether it's drama ("Judgment at Nurenberg"), comedy thrillers ("Topkapi"), or, as in this case, comedy. He never fails to bring something extra to the role. His first entrance here knocks the whole situation askew. Clark has enlisted a fellow student to help him carry this giant lizard (Varanus komodoensis -- they pronounce the specific name wrong) and a bearded sunglassed Schell ambles into the scene during the delivery, fondling a ferret, looks up with a big smile, and says, "Sabatini said one boy.... Here are two!" Clark runs through his explanation while Schell listens politely before replying, "Sabatini said one boy.... Here are two!" He says it a third time before ambling off. That's ALL he says.
I've seen this about three times since I first commented on it and, although this is anything but a "deep" movie, I've continually found things, mostly jokes, that I'd missed earlier. I must give a few examples.
Never before had I noticed some particular details in the scene in which Brando cracks the walnuts. I had just seen him cracking walnuts. More recently I've noticed that in this scene Brando, apparently dead serious, tells Broderick that he wants him to accept the job offer. "I don't want to hear 'no', I want to hear 'yes.'" And that, immediately after these lines, while Broderick is pondering an answer, Brando picks up TWO walnuts, rolls them in his palm, and slowly but noisily CRACKS them.
And another of the many allusions to "The Godfather" finally registered on my interpretive apparatus. As the end credits begin to roll, Broderick and Brando are taking the monitor for a walk through the cornfields in long shot. And we can hear Brando's voice offering Broderick some career assistance. "Y'know, Clark, when you get out to Hollywood, maybe I can help you." "No, please." "It wouldn't take much. Just a few phone calls." "NO!" "I could kick open a few doors for you." The penny finally dropped and I could see Brando arranging to have a lopped-off horse head planted in some producer's bed.
Just a few other points. One is that the score owes something to "The Stunt Man." Another is that Brando seems so perfectly comfortable in this self parody. He seems to be genuinely enjoying himself. His body language is exquisite. He lolls around in his chair, sticks his tongue in his cheek (literally), waves his hands, shrugs, and does everything else flawlessly. Sometimes his whiskery voice gets away from the Don Corleone model. I don't think Vito Corleone would be so indignant when talking about Polaroid and IBM on the phone. "I told you before, Charlie, I don't LIKE it when they go DOWN. Listen. I had another stock broker once and he only called me with bad news. It got very UNPLEASANT, Charlie, y'unnerstand me?"
And anyone who thinks of the later Brando as a bloated hypocrite who has lost whatever acting chops he once had should take another look at the scene in which he visits Broderick in the college dorm room. Broderick, at Brando's own request, recites a poem written by his father, a rather elliptical one, and Brando's character picks it up immediately -- "Ah, the cat." And the discussion about Curious George. And Brando's momentary melancholy as he looks around the college dorm, an environment as alien to him as the planet Neptune, shrugs and comments, "Well, I didn't miss nuthin'." It isn't funny. It's touching.
I thought this movie was very funny and quite original, considering the stale material it was sending up, and I still think so. Two years' worth of additional viewings hasn't changed things. You must see it, if only to hear Bert Parks sing "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more."
But Brando is what makes the movie special: like a sprinkling of something heavenly on an otherwise earthbound enterprise. He's done far more brilliant work elsewhere, of course, but I can't think of another movie that caught just what a uniquely odd presence he was.
I'll say it again: As graceful and charming a performance as he ever gave. RIP, big man.
Then there's Matthew Broderick. This is the last movie he made that I truly enjoyed. He is absolutely perfect in this part. His part calls for him to portray his earnest and trusting personality, his loyalty to Brando's character and to the job he agreed to perform, his growing fondness and respect for Brando's character, and his confusion about perhaps having given his respect to such a disreputable character. Broderick carries off all these aspects of his role, yet shows the strength of character to be able to help solve all his problems by the movie's end.
Or, he could have ended up as Rodolfo Lasparri of Palermo, Sicily.
And the Mona Lisa...now THAT's a Da Vinci Code!
Of course the story is daft, so what? I LOVE the scenes with the giant lizard - especially the end with Brando walking it and talking to it. There are so many great lines - I suggest that your reviewer who couldn't understand a word Brando said throughout the film cleans his ears out so he can hear gems such as: "So this is college. I didn't miss nothing'", and, "When you get to Hollywood I want you to gimme a call. I could kick a few doors open for ya." And Maximilion Schell: superb as the mad chef. "Carmine said one boy, here are two." There are so few gentle Hollywood comedies, with genuine poignancy, where the "feelgood" factor isn't tacked on, where's there's no sentimental slop, just humanity and warmth. Cherish this beautiful little film and marvel that it even ever came to be made.