Mafioso Brando Tramples Quirky Comedy

Broderick and Cast, Though Talented, Do Not Bear Up Under Strain

In the dark recesses of an Italian "social club" in lower Manhattan, Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando), an elderly mafioso, peers across a small table at Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick), a rosy-faced NYU film student fresh from Vermont. Sabatini orders Kellogg some Italian coffee and proceeds to pour four or five heaping spoonfuls of sugar into the small demitasse. The taste of the stuff is enough to make Kellogg grimace.

The Freshman

Directed by Andrew Bergman

Produced by Mike Lobell

Tri-Star Pictures

The Freshman, written and directed by Andrew Bergman, is likely to leave the viewer with the same bittersweet taste as the coffee. This film is a well-scripted comedy overwhelmed--flawed, even--by the commanding and disconcerting presence of veteran actor Marlon Brando. Despite its failings, though, this is not a movie to leave the viewer grimacing.

Understandably, the viewer is not exactly sure what to make of the work--it is hard, after all, to imagine a film suffering from too much talent. But there is an obvious incompatability between the writing talents of Bergman (proven in the past by his works Blazing Saddles and Fletch) featured in this taut, very funny script, and the monolithic acting abilities of two-time Academy Award winner Brando. Matters are complicated further by the fact that The Freshman is largely a parody of the mob ethos engendered by The Godfather and its central character, Don Corleone, immortalized by Brando.

The heart and soul of both The Godfather and The Freshman, their essense, if you will, simply is Marlon Brando. Brando, arguably, is bigger than the films themselves, bigger than their scripts. His performance in The Godfather is so powerful that Don Corleone has come to typify the under-world kingpin, not only in Hollywood, but in the American consciousness as well. Brando's riveting presence is an asset in The Godfather, given the somber ambience carefully crafted by Francis Ford Coppola, and the balance provided to the work by the equally riveting performances of Al Paccino, Robert Duvall, and James Caan, all nominated for Academy Awards.

In the The Freshman's lighter setting, however, Brando's tremendous ability becomes a bull in a china shop. The movie calls for deft direction to avoid trampling the film's fragile comedic atmosphere. Reigning in Brando under such stringent tolerances would be a challenge for even the most accomplished director, a task clearly beyond the abilities of Bergman. He might be comforted by the knowledge that he practically doomed himself to failure right from the outset. Bergman made the already difficult task of executing an intelligent farce of The Godfather even more trying by casting in The Freshman's piviotal role the same figure he is attempting to parody.

In order for an audience to appreciate a parody, they need to be familiar with the subject being ridiculed; in the case of The Freshman this is a doubled-edged sword. No one who has seen The Godfather will, without great difficulty, be able to successfully separate Brando's characterization of Don Corleone from his characterization of Carmine Sabatini. In the viewer's mind Brando's various incarnations of the mob boss blur, and along with the confusion goes The Freshman's hopes for a separate successful identity.

The nagging feeling of deja vu that plagues the viewer throughout The Freshman obscures some of the film's considerable accomplishments. The Freshman is about the rather rude introduction Clark Kellogg gets to the big city. Eager to start his first year at NYU Film School, he arrives at Grand Central Station and is immediately conned out of all his money and possessions by Victor Ray (Bruno Kirby). Kellogg meets up with Ray again and in order to make up for his past wrongs, offers him a job working for his uncle, Carmine Sabatini, a prominent importer with dubious business dealings. Sabatini sets Kellogg up delivering illegally imported endangedred species to mafioso gourmet chef Larry London (Maximilain Schell). Kellogg soon finds himself drawn into the Sabatini family deeper and faster than he wishes, engaged to Sabatini's daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller) and under federal investigation for his role in his boss's illegal dealings. What follows, of course, is plot twists and farce.

Bergman has assembled a talented if not superstar ensemble around Brando, and it is certainly not on their account that Brando overpowers the film. Broderick possesse a natural comic timing, and is perfect in his role as the naive New Englander. Kirby, too, is excellent in his role, extremely convincing as Sabatini's slightly slimy go-fernephew. Miller slips in and out of her horribly affected Queens accent but is well suited to her character, effectively portraying the spoiled self-consciousness one might expect from the mafia princess. And Academy Award-winning actor Schell is strangely engaging as the quirky eccentric chef. He displays a comic subtlety remarkable in a serious actor.

And Brando is, well, Brando. The point of departure for The Freshman is a newspaper article Bergman came across, describing the arrest of a under-world figure for illegally smuggling endangered animals into the United States. Brando is flawless in his portrayal of the omniscient honor-bound mafia figure, just offbeat enough to make very believable the idea of a man involved in importing endangered species. Unfortunately, this ridiculous plot should not be the heart of the film. Like all of Bergman's scripts, The Freshman is about a man trapped in circumstances beyond his control, a role filled here by Broderick's character. By right, the film's focus should be on Broderick, but Brando usurps that focus. The action sequences involving Broderick as a result appear banal and contrived in comparison to watching the sheer genius of Brando's acting unfold onscreen.

Fortunately, The Freshman possesses another subtext that thrives on the power of Brando's acting. On one level, The Freshman is about the father-son relationship between Sabatini, who never had a son, and Kellogg, whose father died when he was six. This would be an utterly ordinary thesis in most films, but the force of Brando's potrayal of the paternalistic Sabatini and Broderick's capable rendering of the All-American rural innocent provide The Freshman with convincing human impact. Just as The Godfather succeeds largely because it was able to make the family life of the murdering, lawbreaking Corleone family somehow seem real and touching, its parody The Freshman is able to rescue itself from the destruction of Bergman's intentions. And despite some directorial flaws, The Freshman is funny and entertaining in a delightfully quirky manner.