Shortly after he finished shooting this screwball farce last fall, Marlon Brando disowned The Freshman as “a flop.” Later, he recanted and said the movie “contains moments of high comedy that will be remembered for decades to come.” Well, The Freshman is not a flop — it’s something closer to fitfully amusing. But it’s hardly time-capsule material either, except for those scenes in which Brando appears.
Aside from a supporting part last year in the apartheid drama A Dry White Season, for which he won an Oscar nomination, Brando hasn’t appeared on film since The Formula in 1980. He’s been missed. Brando is hugely entertaining as Carmine Sabatini, a shady Manhattan importer who bears a striking resemblance in looks, dress and speech to Don Corleone, the Mafioso whom Brando immortalized in The Godfather. The resemblance is noticed by most of the characters in The Freshman, especially Matthew Broderick as Clark Kellogg, newly arrived in the Big Apple from Vermont to study at the New York University film school.
Though the students are shown overanalyzing scenes from The Godfather, Part II, writer-director Andrew Bergman (Chances Are) doesn’t make nearly enough of the satirical possibilities inherent in cinema academia. He’s too busy setting up the feeble plot: Kellogg is robbed by Victor Ray (Bruno Kirby), who happens to be the nephew of Sabatini, who happens to have a crooked scheme in which to engage Kellogg and a marriageable daughter (Penelope Ann Miller) he’d like the boy to meet.
The scheme involves the unwitting Kellogg and his student pal Steve (the talented Frank Whaley) in transporting animals — endangered species, to be exact — to the kitchen of Sabatini’s partner, chef Larry London (Maximilian Schell), who serves them to high-rolling gourmets for about $350,000 a plate. It’s a queasy subject for comedy, though you haven’t known queasy until Bert Parks turns up to sing a lampoon version of his old Miss America theme to the endangered plat du jour on the evening’s menu, in this case a Komodo dragon. (Don’t worry, unendangered lizards were hired to do the stunts.)
The real pleasures of this movie are watching Brando crushing walnuts while making people offers they can’t refuse or sitting at home with the Mona Lisa (the Louvre has a copy) or visiting Kellogg at school (“If this is college, I didn’t miss nothin'”) or ice-skating with surprising agility or just standing there bringing out the best in young actors like Broderick, Kirby, Miller and Whaley. With Brando around, The Freshman has a snappy madness that’s hard to resist. Who’d have thought the big guy had such a charming light touch?