As Carmine Sabatini, the Little Italy “importer” in “The Freshman” who bears a striking resemblance to Vito Corleone, Marlon Brando pulls off a minor miracle. By all rights, watching America’s finest actor parody one of his greatest roles should be a sorry spectacle--a sign of artistic bankruptcy. Brando acts so infrequently that, when he does, you want him to do something great, something fresh .
Except that he does indeed do something fresh. The role is nothing more than an elaborate comic turn, but he invests it with such sly knowingness and reserves of feeling that he gives this dinky joke-book movie a soul. Brando is doing here what a lot of famous actors probably wish they could do to the roles that made them famous (or, in Brando’s case, famous again). He’s using the gravity of his performance in “The Godfather” for comic effect, bringing out the absurdity that was always just under the surface of the role.
For years, Brando’s Godfather was perhaps the most heavily parodied of all contemporary performances. (The take-offs were a back-handed tribute.) Why shouldn’t Brando join in the fun? What “The Freshman” demonstrates is that Brando can parody himself better than any of his imitators--and still appear as regal as ever.
With a Brando impersonator playing Carmine, “The Freshman” (rated PG) would have been a lot skimpier. It’s pretty skimpy anyway and yet, just when you’ve had it with the mistimed scenes and the clunky direction, writer-director Andrew Bergman comes through with an inspired piece of lunacy.
Technically, the movie is a step back from Bergman’s last film, “So Fine.” As hilarious as that movie often was, it was his directorial debut, and he was just learning the ropes. In “The Freshman,” (citywide), Bergman is still learning the ropes, but at least he’s canny enough to cast actors (besides Brando) who are loose enough to respond to the script’s japery. The performers’ comic instincts are liberated by the free-wheeling goofiness.
Matthew Broderick plays Clark Kellogg, a Vermont kid who enrolls in the NYU Film School. When his bags are stolen on his way from the airport, Clark tracks down the penny ante crook (Bruno Kirby), who fast-talks his way into making amends by giving Clark a job introduction with his uncle Carmine. The job turns out to be smuggling into the country a Komodo dragon--a giant lizard on the endangered species list. (An equally large, unendangered monitor lizard was substituted.)
Now any movie that hinges on a smuggled giant lizard is definitely worth a look-see. And so is any movie that features Bert Parks as an emcee who croons to his swank assemblage, “There she is, your Komodo dragon.” Parks also gets to sing “Tequila,” from under an outsized sombrero, and “Maggie’s Farm,” in a version that will probably have Bob Dylan crying into his harmonica.
Maximilian Schell turns up as a martinet chef with a Dr. Strangelove accent. As the NYU film professor who projects scenes from “The Godfather II” to his class and ecstatically mouths the actors’ words, Paul Benedict is a inspired loon. Bergman, before he became a screenwriter (“Blazing Saddles,” “The In-Laws”), published a doctoral thesis on American movies during the Depression. That may explain the affectionate-satiric tone in Benedict’s scenes. This fatuous, trivia-engorged prof is probably Bergman’s worst-case image of what he might have become if he had stayed in academia.
It’s a pity there isn’t more film-school satire. We never get a sense of what kind of filmmaker Clark wants to be, what movies he likes. It’s an undernourished role in general, and Broderick, funny and proficient as he sometimes is, seems miscast; he’s too old, and too smart-looking, to be playing callow country boys.
But he has a genuine rapport with Brando, and that gives the movie a real lift in their scenes together. Clark’s father died when he was a kid; his stepfather is a bullying animal activist fanatic who cares little about his stepson, and so it makes sense that Clark would respond to Carmine’s courtly, patrician largess. There’s a wayward subplot about Carmine trying to marry off Clark with his sexually avid daughter (Penelope Ann Miller), his only child, but the surrogate father/son relationship between the two men is the film’s emotional core.
In Brando’s best scene, Carmine, suspecting Clark is going to betray him to the feds, walks in on the boy in his dorm room and tries to strike a human connection. It’s comical to see this bulky Mafioso in a dormitory, but, the way Brando plays it, it’s also mysteriously moving. It’s as if Carmine, without his royal trappings, had been reduced to a tender, beseeching old man.