WHEN WAS the last time you were really surprised in a movie? These days, it seems, most movies are homogenized and safely predictable in order to appeal to the widest possible audience without disturbing anyone.
Surprise! Here's "The Freshman," a quirky sleeper with something truly unexpected around every corner. Its best surprises are the appearance of the long-absent Marlon Brando, in his first starring role in a decade, and his comic charisma and chemistry with co-star Matthew Broderick.
Wary but green NYU film school freshman Clark Kellogg (Broderick) has been in New York City fully 19 minutes and 11 seconds when he talks to a stranger and winds up losing everything he owns. Kellogg accidentally catches up with the scamster who offers him a job by way of apology, and Kellogg finds himself helplessly drawn into a nearly surrealistic New York demimonde. It's like Griffin Dunne's ordeal in "After Hours," only considerably less nightmarish.
Kellogg's employer is one Carmine Sabatini (Brando), an imposing Italian eminence everyone insists is an "importer," but who bears a startling resemblance to Don Corleone of "Godfather" film fame (which is coincidentally being screened and studied in Clark's film class). Terrifying but sentimental, Sabatini takes a fatherly shine to Kellogg and sends him out to pick up a package -- which turns out to be a rare Komodo dragon, a reptile fully seven feet long, with a flickering forked tongue seemingly half that length. By the time Kellogg smells trouble, he can't refuse Sabatini's offer, and the chaos happily escalates.
Brando and Broderick get along brilliantly, with what seems on screen a natural affection and affinity. Brando, who has an ingeniously offhand way with his clever lines, takes some sly swipes at his own iconic "Godfather" characterization, and good-naturedly lends his considerable dignity to some very silly situations. Broderick is up to the challenge of acting with a giant. His Kellogg is an amalgam of his other smart-kid roles -- he even begins the movie with a "Ferris Bueller"/"Biloxi Blues"-style voice-over. But it's Brando's movie.
All the lesser lights shine as brightly, including Bruno Kirby as the flaky flimflam man who sets Kellogg on the road to ruthlessness; Penelope Ann Miller, who clearly relishes the role of Mafia princess; and Paul Benedict, flesh-crawlingly familiar as the insufferably self-regarding film professor. And the Komodo dragon (actually a dragon look-alike called a water monitor) is so ugly-adorable you'll be rooting for it in its mad dash for freedom in a New Jersey mall.
Writer-director Andrew Bergman gets away with nearly every goofy gag he goes for, and he's successful largely because his actors never betray that their giddy universe isn't absolutely real. There are rather large loopholes in the film's internal logic -- it's a good bet that chunks of film lie on a floor somewhere. But "The Freshman" is so refreshing and endearing, its laughs so genuine, chances are you'll be willing to forgive the minor glitches. Bergman's got a sweet-natured sense of humor and the film is peppered with in-jokes and matter-of-factly off-the-wall sight gags and cameo appearances. (If I told you more, it wouldn't be a surprise.)