Although not 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 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 other choice than to 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 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 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. Everything 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.