'Free Enterprise': Beam Me Up a Special Edition

Eric McCormack, left, Rafer Weigel and William Shatner star in the
Eric McCormack, left, Rafer Weigel and William Shatner star in the "Star Trek"-inspired comedy "Free Enterprise." (Anchor Bay Entertainment)

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By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 10, 2006

Every cult movie has its day. At least, every one does in the ever-swelling DVD market, where even the most obscure, niche titles often manage to surface as special-edition releases.

Case in point: "Free Enterprise," a comedy about a pair of "Star Trek"-obsessed almost-thirty-somethings released briefly in all of nine theaters in 1999. Starring a pre-"Will & Grace" Eric McCormack, Rafer Weigel (a last-minute replacement for Christian Slater) and William Shatner as himself, the indie film grossed a little more than $13,000 during its theatrical run. Yet through the magic of sci-fi geek word-of-mouth, "Enterprise" eventually found an audience on DVD, cable television and through screenings at various festivals and conventions. The filmmakers are even exploring a sequel, "Free Enterprise 2." What's the hipness quotient on the movie? According to McCormack -- who participates in one of the two commentaries included on a longer cut of "Free Enterprise," released on DVD Tuesday -- "Pulp Fiction" filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is a big fan.

That's right, I said longer cut. Actually, the official title of the DVD is "Free Enterprise: Five Year Mission Extended Edition Two-Disc Set" ($19.98, unrated), which essentially means that new extras and additional scenes have been added to this latest incarnation of the amateurish but occasionally likable movie.

The plot, which plays like "Swingers" meets "Trekkies," focuses on Mark (McCormack) and Robert (Weigel), two childhood friends who can't quite get their lives together as grown men living in Los Angeles. Both work on the lowest possible totem poles of the film industry and maintain less-than-healthy fixations on "Star Trek," "Star Wars" and all things related to pop culture. In casual conversation, they say things to each other such as, "You were as transparent as Wonder Woman's invisible jet" and "What you need in your life is a Trixie," a nod to the character from "Speed Racer." They're the sort of guys who would be buddies with Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons," if Comic Book Guy were better looking and more neurotic.

The two eventually cross paths with their childhood hero, Shatner, who can't stop talking about his latest passion project: A one-man musical version of "Julius Caesar" starring (naturally) himself. Shatner is just one of several familiar faces that appear, including Patrick Van Horn (Sue from "Swingers"), Phil LaMarr (Marvin from "Pulp Fiction") and Deborah Van Valkenberg, who appeared in another cult film, 1979's "The Warriors," as well as the '80s sitcom "Too Close for Comfort." Actually, playing "identify the pop culture references" is one of the chief pleasures "Free Enterprise" provides. That, and watching the often funny and, strangely enough, sometimes touching performance by Shatner, who initially balked at playing himself in the film because he thought it would be "too embarrassing."

What's actually embarrassing is how closely the movie hews to the real lives of the two filmmakers behind it, Mark A. Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett. Virtually every scene -- from a childhood flashback in which Robert is prevented from seeing "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" to a racy scene in which Mark pleasures a woman while driving and gets in a car accident -- was inspired by incidents involving Altman and Burnett. (As McCormack puts it when recalling his initial reaction to the screenplay, "You guys didn't even change your [expletive] names?")

Despite its autobiographical nature, the characters never ring true and neither do the ultra-tidy way their problems are resolved by movie's end. Ironically, a half-hour episode of a movie review show called "Cafe Fantastique," which is included as a special feature and stars Altman, Burnett, "Futurama" writer Dan Vebber and production artist Daren Dochterman ("Master and Commander," the upcoming "X-Men: The Last Stand") is more engaging than all two hours of the movie. Still, "Trek" fans and anyone who has ever obsessed about a movie, comic book or television show will spot moments that ring true. Plus, in a surreal scene that foreshadows Shatner's recent musical partnership with Ben Folds, Captain Kirk actually raps. For some, that alone may be worth the price of a trip on this "Enterprise."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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