The Freshman - 1990

Written and Directed by Andrew Bergman, released July 27, 1990

Farce is better when served straight, and that's the minor flaw in Andrew Bergman's The Freshman with a sequence near the end that explains many of the bizarre twists in this tale of an innocent film student (Matthew Broderick) who gets caught up in the employ of a mob family in New York City. The characters are so passionate, strange and lovable, that the viewer doesn't really want them to become 'normal,' and though the film contains an affectionate reference to other film eras (silent movies up to the most obvious reference, The Godfather) perhaps there is no way for a movie from 1990 to not make concessions to late 20th century rationality, and more's the pity.

Godfather revamped

The theme of The Freshman is theft, and it steals more than just a little bit from the 1972 Godfather film, which is not unlike the actions of the junior-mobster played in the film by Bruno Kirby, who, in the space of just a few minutes, expertly robs the young Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick), just arrived from Vermont to attend a New York City film school (run by the wildly egomaniac professor Arthur Fleeber, played by Paul Benedict).

"I had been in New York for exactly eight minutes and I was already ruined," laments Kellogg, watching in frustration as Bruno Kirby suddenly drives away with all of his money and belongings in the trunk of his freelance-taxi where Kellogg had helpfully placed his goods after haggling over the price for transportation.

Next comes explaining his new poverty to his 'course advisor' (also Fleeber) at the expensive film school, and The Freshman accelerates into a lampoon of college, film art, film study, mobster movies and more, but especially sets up Marlon Brando (as mob 'father' Carmine Sabatini) to parody himself and his Godfather character, Don Vito Corleone.

Son of the Mob

Needing money, Kellogg is guided to a job by the same man who robbed him earlier (Kirby) who is the nephew of the legendary "importer" Sabatini in Queens, NYC. At first the job seems like a simple matter of delivering goods that come into the country via the airport, but Kellogg is soon experiencing a journey of confusion as he unwillingly rises within the Italian Mafioso family, and particularly in the affections of both Sabatini and his daighter Tina (played by Penelope Ann Miller). Like Henry Fonda's portrayal of the naive 'Hopsy' Pike in Sturges' The Lady Eve, both Kellogg and Pike are innocents confronted by women who know a lot more than they do.By the time Kellogg finds himself betrothed to the mob daughter Tina, he doesn't know how or when the engagement happened, and no matter how he protests, no one is listening. Likewise, when Kellogg insists to his new employer (and future father-in-law) Sabatini that he won't be involved in anything illegal, and Sabatini keeps assuring him everything they're doing is perfectly legal, all the same Kellogg finds himself involved in bribing airport cargo employees, meeting the bizarre and threatening chef Larry London (Maximilion Schell) and being chased by enforcement agents from an indeterminate federal agency. As Kellogg tries to decode what's happening and his fear is growing, Sabatini's daughter tells him helpfully that everything will be okay because they're getting him a gun.

Negatives and provolone

This film had a mixed critical response to the original release. Seeing Brando make fun of his Corleone character wasn't exactly greeted cheerfully in some filmic quarters, where Godfather (and Brando) are treated as a holy objects telling deep truths about America (this is both praised and made of fun of in the course of The Freshman* where scenes take place in Kellogg's film classes. These classes let us overhear genuine critical analysis under the direction of the possibly crazy Professor Fleeber.)

The climax of the movie in which Larry London's culinary skills are brought into the service of cooking and distributing (for hundreds of thousands of dollars per plate) a Kamodo Dragon to a wealthy mass of "international degenerates" assembled in a huge catering tent in the middle of a corn field (with Bert Park's leading the entertainment, singing Bob Dylan's "Maggies' Farm" and then "here he is, your Kamodo Dragon...") involves a complicated bait-and-switch plan that could have come right out of a 1930s comedy. Setting everything aright by the end is a hallmark of classic comedy, but maybe The Freshman sets it all too aright.

There is a lot of love for old Hollywood and Brando here, and cultural references to the Marx Brothers, Superman, pro wrestling, and even poetry. These are all merits to an aware cinema fan. Did Andrew Bergman deliberately write (and direct) the movie to operate on two different levels? That seems too complicated, but with the scenes at Kellogg's film school added to the mix, there's commentary on a completely different movie (The Godfather II) informing us of a whole other dimension of movie-making that extends past our fictional characters, which installs a third level of activity within The Freshman, which already abounds with actors playing actors who are playing characters.

Probably Bergman (or TriStar Pictures Corp.) doesn't want us to dwell on complexity, but to just laugh at the comedy, which is easy enough to do with The Freshman.

[*The film title is apparently a reference to Harold Lloyd's 1925 silent comedy epic The Freshman, and the strategically placed poster of Buster Keaton in Clark Kellogg's dorm room probably isn't an accident, either.]

Original Page November 2015 | Updated Dec 2015 + | April 2018

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