In 1990, the long-awaited third movie in The Godfather trilogy was released to an eager public—which was promptly disappointed. The Godfather: Part III was dismissed by audiences and critics as implausible, poorly cast and—as Neil Smith of the BBC wrote—“a pale shadow of its predecessors. . . . This was an offer director Francis Ford Coppola should have refused.”
Another, smaller sort of spinoff of The Godfather series was also released in 1990. And despite being even more implausible, the screwball comedy The Freshman sneaks into our Top 100.
The Freshman has one thing that The Godfather: Part III does not—Marlon Brando. While Brando reprises his role as Don Vito Corleone (well, sort of) for laughs, it’s not a cheap trick. Instead, it’s a funny, recurring joke. And you, as a member of the audience, are in on the gag.
Brando plays Carmine Sabatini, an apparent New York crime boss working out of Little Italy. He has the Mona Lisa—the real Mona Lisa—hanging above the mantel in his living room. His appearance and voice are so evocative of Don Corleone that those meeting him for the first time are nonplussed.
“You know, your resemblance to the Godfa—” blurts out young Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick), before being cut off by Sabatini’s aides. No one must state the obvious.
Brando reprises Don Corleone’s air of authority. He raises his eyebrows like the Godfather, folds his hands, scratches his face with the backs of his fingers. You’ve seen these gestures before, but here they’re played for comedy. And it works. To further the parody, Broderick’s character is a student at NYU, where his freshman film class studies The Godfather: Part II.
The plotline is almost superfluous. Clark, through a series of mishaps, finds himself working for Sabatini as a highly paid “delivery boy.” His task is to hand off an imported Komodo dragon to a mad Teutonic chef (Maximilian Schell) eager to butcher it for a diners’ club that specializes in endangered species. Meanwhile, Clark becomes unwittingly engaged to Sabatini’s daughter (Penelope Ann Miller) and is chased by corrupt agents of the Justice Department. He wants no part of any of this, but doesn’t have the gumption to stand up to mobsters, cops or a willing and attractive young woman.
In one scene, Brando’s Sabatini seals a deal by kissing Clark on the mouth. “Do you know how big this is?” says an awed Victor Ray (Bruno Kirby), Sabatini’s nephew. “Bacio di tutti baci. The kiss of all kisses. That’s the highest. Now you’re in for life.”
All Clark wants to do now is go home to Vermont.
Broderick is fine in his role as the reluctant young man caught in events far beyond his control. He is the straight man to the lunacy swirling around him and to a cast of accomplished actors who make this parody worth 102 minutes of your time.
Along the way, there are all kinds of quirky little moments: Bert Parks singing “Maggie’s Farm” in a style we’re sure Bob Dylan never envisioned. The pompous, tweedy professor (Paul Benedict) who believes he is Michael Corleone as he shows the film in class. Brando on ice skates—that alone is worth the price of the rental.
And there are several inside jokes that any fan of gangster movies should enjoy. Don’t miss the moment when Brando talks privately to the Komodo dragon, riffing on the “I could have been a contender” monologue from On the Waterfront.
HIT: The late Bruno Kirby (born Bruno Giovanni Quidaciolu Jr.) is a hoot in his role as Victor, Sabatini’s pushy, streetwise nephew. In fact, we always enjoyed Kirby—as a small-time mobster in Donnie Brasco, as Billy Crystal’s buddy in When Harry Met Sally, and—of course—as young Clemenza in The Godfather: Part II. Bet you didn’t know that the five-foot-six actor was a close high school pal of seven-foot-two basketball legend Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
MISS: Sometimes, the screwball comedy gets a little too screwball, such as when the Komodo dragon leads a sitcom-level chase scene through a suburban shopping mall.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Mr. Brando serves in this film not only as an unexpectedly deft comic actor but also as a magnificent piece of found art, presenting himself quite matter-of-factly as a character any filmgoer of the last 20 years will recognize. When the resemblance is remarked upon, Mr. Brando makes things even better by delivering one of the character’s drowsy-eyed, infinitely philosophical shrugs.”—Janet Maslin, New York Times
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The sideways glance that Clark gives to a stack of oranges when he goes to meet Sabatini in a produce market. In The Godfather, the presence of oranges was used at least a half-dozen times to foreshadow an impending death.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Not as high as The Godfather, obviously, but good for an occasional laugh.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Soon after The Freshman was shot in Toronto, Brando called the city room of the Toronto Globe and Mail and asked to speak to a reporter—any reporter.
“It’s horrible,” he said of the movie. “It’s going to be a flop, but after this I’m retiring. I’m so fed up. . . . I wish I hadn’t finished with a stinker.”
A few weeks later—perhaps after realizing his paycheck was tied to box office take—the 65-year-old actor flip-flopped. In a stilted press release, he said, “The movie contains moments of high comedy that will be remembered for decades to come.”
BEST LINE: Victor, explaining the Big Apple’s cultural strata to newcomer Clark: “Here in New York, we have three distinct social classes: A—people who make a billion dollars a day and get laid in some tower every night; B—people who live in Times Square and eat Yankee Doodles on the sidewalk; and C—guys like me; guys I like to call the glue of society.”
GOOF: The costar of the movie, that so-called Komodo dragon, is actually a Nile monitor. Wise move swapping it out though, since Komodo dragons cannot be trained and their bites are sometimes fatal.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: The maitre d’ (Gianni Russo) who shows Brando into the Gourmet Club should be familiar to him. That’s because Russo played Brando’s son-in-law, the violent and stupid Carlo, in The Godfather. Things didn’t turn out too well for him in that movie, either.
BODY COUNT: Not a one.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]