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The thing about a running gag in a movie is how effectively can it can be introduced and whether it is sustainable. Too over the head and it loses opportunity to have lasting impact. Too subtle, it might be missed. This is doubly so when the gag revolves around something that is already not only one of the most recognized and influential characteristics in film but one that has already been played out in parody.
With The Freshman, that joke is of course Marlon Brando, a man who many consider altered the course of acting itself with his high octane, low heat approach. While he garnered much acclaim for his early work, including a 1955 Best Actor Oscar for his performance in On The Waterfront, it was his genre-defining (and second Academy Award-winning) turn as Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Godfather that became his legacy.
The characteristics and distinctive mannerisms of Don Corleone would reshape the very definition of what a mob boss was to such a degree that actual mob bosses began to adopt what they saw on screen, and Brando’s eccentric, menacing presence earned him the highest praise for his work, which of course led to the highest level of complement, the endless line of parodies that followed. By 1990, the “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” flavor of comedy had reached it limits, or so it seemed, yet there was one more person who was ready to get in on the action, none other than Brando himself. And to be sure, there could be none better to do the job.
The film centers around Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick), a young, naive student who is literally fresh off the bus in New York, or rather in this case, the train. Arriving at Grand Central Terminal, he is almost immediately approached by a slimy looking fellow named Victor Ray (Bruno Kirby), who offers the young man a ride to wherever he’s going. Clark accepts but when they get to the NYU campus, Victor speeds away with Clark’s luggage still in the car, clearly robbing him.
Moments later, while desperately pleading his case with his professor (Paul Benedict), Clark spots Victor out the window and gives chase, eventually stopping the slower man. Victor admits to what he did but then asks Kellogg for a favor in order to get his bags back. With no choice, Clark agrees and Victor takes him into the city to meet his uncle Carmine (Brando), who operates in the backroom of a small Italian coffee shop. And here the gag begins.
Sitting behind a table in the shadows, Carmine is introduced with a familiar nod, and because it is Brando, we know who and what he is doing. It’s not a representation of Don Corleone, nor is it an homage. He “is” the Godfather, at least in the way looks and talks. They even mention the movie The Godfather as being based on Carmine, not the other way around, though everyone is careful not to say this to Carmine. Clark later learns he is actually Jimmy The Toucan, a notorious mob boss.
Aside from the brilliant send-up of himself, what makes the Carmine character work so well, and is testament to Brando’s great skill, was how Carmine evolves away from the Don Corleone trappings and becomes a compelling figure on his own, eventually shedding what once seemed obvious. This is also due to a great script by Andrew Bergman, who is also the film’s director. The screenplay is sharp, careful to give the comparisons enough weight so they work but not so much that it topples.
The favor Carmine and Victor ask of Clark seems easy enough, but spirals out of control when Clark is tasked with picking up a Komodo dragon from JFK Airport, to be delivered to a secret location. Enlisting the help of his roommate Steve Bushak (Frank Whaley), Clark discovers the highly hush-hush Fabulous Gourmet Club, where people pay huge amounts of money to eat endangered animals. This naturally upsets Clark, but also gets him caught in the middle of a sting operation with the Department of Justice, leading to a wild conclusion that spins everything on its ear.
The Freshman is more than the screwball comedy it portends to be. Boosted by Broderick’s energetic yet naively charming performance the film is continually lifted by the outstanding supporting work, especially Benedict, who is a Godfather-obsessed fanatic teaching the film in his film studies class, but mostly by Kirby, who flat-out has the funniest moments as he brings the sycophantic Victor to the very edge of farce before reeling it back. Never over-doing it, he is careful to let himself stay properly in the tertiary aspects of a scene, but by doing so, is spectacularly funny.
While the film was well-received by critics and was a modest box office success, it is often a forgotten title and has oddly fallen off the list of great films of the decade. Brando’s work is some of his best, and the clever and inventive story is easily one of the more unique ever to get to screen. Well worth finding, The Freshman is a perfect pick for a weekend watch.