In writing "The Freshman," Andrew Bergman must have felt that he'd come up with the genius stroke of his life. He'd write an urban comedy in which a Mafia leader bearing an uncanny resemblance to Marlon Brando's Don Corleone in "The Godfather" is at the center of a farcical conspiracy -- and somehow get Brando to play the part. Think of it: Brando playing a character based on a character he originated, doing the Don again, the padded cheeks, the cracked voice, the whole bit. It's so outrageously eccentric, so way out there, that he just might buy it. Wouldn't that be wild? Wouldn't that be great?
No, it's not great, and for a great number of reasons.
First off, only an actor with complete and utter disdain for his art, who's completely convinced of the worthlessness of the life he has chosen, would agree to do what Marlon Brando has done in "The Freshman." Brando is never less than a miraculously magnetic camera subject; just to have him in front of the lens is, in most cases, enough.
His impersonation of himself here is deft, but not particularly impressive. This is, after all, a character we know he can play.
Even so, a great actor's self-parody might be fascinating, especially if the actor is Brando. But the performance Brando gives here is anything but a good-natured goof on himself. The impulse to play the buffoon and wiggle his behind in the faces of the fools who revere him has been present in Brando since early in his career. No actor has ever been more contemptuous of his profession -- or the movie business as a whole -- than Brando; to him, acting is nothing, and his performance here shows his self-loathing, his desire to trash himself and his accomplishments. This isn't self-parody, it's self-desecration.
Not only does the work here fail on its own terms, it splashes clown paint all over the Don Corleone character and drags the actor's earlier masterly work down with it. In this regard, Brando and his director are working at cross-purposes. Clearly, Bergman has entered into his project with a spirit of appreciation; his references to the Godfather are presented as homage, as a passionate moviegoer's salute to a great movie and a great movie character. But Brando's approach carries the picture into different territory.
The script, which Bergman (who wrote for Mel Brooks and directed "So Fine" and "The In-Laws") has fashioned into an indifferent, spotty comedy, didn't need Brando to work. The story is typical Bergman: A young innocent -- in this case Clark (Matthew Broderick), who comes to New York from Vermont to enter NYU Film School -- is plunged into a baffling, alien world where people do strange, inexplicable and (sometimes) funny things to him. The instant Clark arrives in the city, he's accosted by a hustler (Bruno Kirby) who steals all his clothes. (Welcome to New York.) Actually, the theft is part of a larger scam to get Clark to run an errand for the hustler's uncle Carmine (Brando), who is a respected figure in the community. You know, a businessman (wink, wink).
The job involves a Komodo dragon, and beyond that you don't wanna know. Part of the problem is that Bergman's gags sound better than they play; you're sure that, in the script, they scored hysterically. But Bergman's nonsensical bits are offbeat in an over-insistent way. Plus, there's something square about his brand of eccentricity. His zaniness is willed; it's forced hilarity. He doesn't have the natural feel for oddball behavior that a director like, say, Jonathan Demme has.
The source of the movie's comedy is that Clark, the one sane person, is surrounded by so many lunatics that he begins to feel insane. When, for example, Clark is introduced to Carmine's daughter, Tina (Penelope Ann Miller), plans for their marriage begin instantly. When Carmine gives Clark a Mercedes as a token of his love and begins referring to him as the son he never had, Clark feels as if he's slipped through the looking glass. On the other hand, being crazy has its attractions, especially where Tina is concerned. Miller has the perfect toss-away style for her role, and when he's on camera with her, Broderick seems less frenzied, more certain of his style too.
At best, though, Broderick is pleasantly innocuous in a role that all too often makes him seem not crazy, but just plain dumb. This -- more than the convoluted pointlessness of the plot -- is the movie's most alienating trait. It's just no fun watching a picture whose hero is a boob.
The movie isn't a total loss. Brando has moments -- for example, a marvelous scene in which Carmine visits Clark in his dormitory room, looks around and says, "So this is college ..." -- that remind you of how much this magnificent actor can make of nothing. Mostly, though, he's making nothing of himself. And watching him, you think -- and you can't believe you're thinking it -- better nothing than this.