Every now and then a comedy comes along that is surprisingly good, but fails to receive its due recognition because it is considered to be slight. This is for the case for The Freshman. It breaks no important cinematic ground, but then it doesn't have to. It succeeds in being both funny and charming, and has many memorable scenes.
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Clark (Matthew Broderick) is a freshman film student at New York University. On his first day in the big city, his luggage is robbed by Victor (Bruno Kirby), a talkative con man. Clark finds Victor and threatens to turn him in. To save his hide, Victor sets Clark up with a shady but well-paying job with Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando).
Carmine, who has an uncanny resemblance to the Godfather, takes to Clark immediately, as does his vivacious college student daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller). Soon enough, Clark is helplessly ensnared in Carmine's activities, which include the illegal importation of endangered species. Clark delivers a Komodo Dragon (actually a water monitor) to Carmine's eccentric chef Larry (Maximilian Schell), who plans to serve the big lizard to the well-heeled clients of the Gourmet Club.
Clark is further upset when he is tailed by two cartoonish federal agents (Jon Polito and Frank Whaley). He also has to deal with his obnoxious film school professor Fleeber (Paul Benedict), and his obsessively environmentalist stepfather (Kenneth Welsh).
Many elements of The Freshman don't completely work. The feds and the stepfather and stereotypes. As the enormity of the conspiracy becomes apparent, it becomes increasingly unbelievable that Carmine, Godfather or no Godfather, is able to foresee and control it all. Some jokes and scenes seem extraneous, such as the revelation that the 'real' Mona Lisa hangs in Carmine's living room.
But the satire finds it mark. Writer/director Andrew Bergman savages film school. Fleeber is characterized as a pompous extortionist, forcing his students to spend hundreds of dollars on his own bloated treatises. Critical discussion of film is reduced to a slavish devotion of a handful of acknowledged classics.
Most of the film, however, deals with the growing friendship between Clark and Carmine. Carmine is a kindler, gentler version of Don Corleone. He's not going to order a hit, but there is a guard armed with a machine gun at his house. The light satire of the Sicilian friendship rituals seen in so many films is also humorous, especially as their purpose is only to put one over on Clark.
Much of the charm of The Freshman comes from its sight gags. Broderick chases a giant lizard through a panic-stricken mall, Brando ice skates with surprising grace, and Bert Parks has the supporting acting role of his life.
Parks had been fired a few years before from the Miss American pageant for committing the sin of being too old. In The Freshman he gets a sort of revenge, singing the Miss America theme to the hapless Komodo Dragon. He also works up some entertaining versions of "Tequila" and Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm". Who says old guys can't rock? (73/100)