Well friends, it appears that the long, pointless national nightmare of me trying to get my hands on a working copy of Free Money is over. When I last bored you with developments from this ongoing saga, I had just been sent a second defective Free Money disc from a popular online renting site whose name rhymes with Schmetflix. That shipment was immediately followed by the delivery of a third broken Free Money DVD. The mystery online rental giant in question probably expected me to give up my Free Money quest in frustration. Little did they know they were dealing with a staunch character.
I called up to complain about my Free Money problems a second time, at which point the operator began laughing at me. Or rather laughing, but apparently not at me. "I'm sorry sir, I'm not laughing at you, I'm really not. It's just kind of a funny situation. You have to admit." She assured me in an egregiously non-reassuring way. I was skeptical, but this morning a working copy of Free Money magically appeared in my mailbox. This is clearly the best thing that's ever happened to anybody in America.
But first some background: back in the pre-historic days of the A.V. Club, when Keith and I rode to work on a brontosaurus together and chiseled our reviews on stone tablets, I reviewed some pretty dire fare for the A.V. Club's Video section. Pretty much anything good had already been released on VHS, and direct-to-video was still a sleazy little ghetto within the entertainment world, not the enormously lucrative, ever-growing sleazy little ghetto it's subsequently become.
In my first few years at the Onion back in the late '90s, I reviewed an obscene amount of direct-to-video schlock. Many were the days I'd peruse the new release wall at Blockbuster on Tuesday looking for fresh meat and find myself thinking "Gary Busey and Michael Madsen in the same movie! My God, it would represent a grievous dereliction of professional duty for me not to write about this masterpiece of the cinema immediately. Throw in Fred Williamson's cameo as a tough-but-fair police captain with a fiery temper and this might just be the most important film of the decade!"
After subsisting for years on a diet heavy on direct-to-video sequels, rapsploitation dreck, perfunctory vehicles for B and C-list martial artists, and dire Quentin Tarantino knock-offs, I became inordinately grateful for direct-to-video fare radiating some level of promise or prestige. When a movie like Breakfast Of Champions crash-landed in the DTV Hooverville, I'd sidle up to it saucily and coo, "What's a movie like you doing in a place like this?"
When today's entry in My Year Of Flops, 1998's Free Money showed up on the new release wall of Four Star Video Heave, it was like a space alien had popped up in a cornfield. How on earth could a movie starring Marlon Brando, Donald Sutherland, Martin Sheen, Charlie Sheen, David Arquette, Thomas Haden Church, and Mira Sorvino get made without me ever hearing about it? There's plenty of prestige on the other side of the camera as well. Yves Simoneau directed the Emmy-anointed Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, the TV adaptation of the book that ranks alongside Roots as one of the leading causes of white guilt among Caucasians between the ages of 12 and 18, myself included, while co-screenwriter Joseph Brutsman went on to scribe for something called Forza Motorsports Showdown, a show I expect to dominate this year's Peabody Awards.
Even more surprisingly Free Money isn't a movie Brando favors with a brief cameo or minor supporting turn. Nope, this is a full-on Marlon Brando movie, from the moment his warden wakes up and finds out his beloved twin daughters–who look disconcertingly like kinkier versions of Wendy of fast-food restaurant mascot fame by way of David Lynch–are ostensibly pregnant to the end credits.
Free Money begins with a scenario familiar from countless traveling salesman and farmer's daughter jokes, two of the film's overt inspirations. Brando's protective papa learns of his twin daughters' apparent pregnancies, expresses shock and horror, theorizes that they must have been drugged and raped, and then sets about securing the shotgun-assisted marriage of his daughters to baby daddies Charles Sheen (who must have done extensive research to get inside the psyche of a man whose libido gets him in trouble) and Thomas Haden Church, who hadn't yet made the transition from dumb guy from Wings to respected character actor.
In black and white flashbacks, we see exactly how Church, Sheen, and their respective brides came to enter married bliss. In but a single unforgettable scene, Brando calls Sheen and Church "Stinkballs," pronounces asses "ath-is," threatens to tear Sheen's nuts off and throw them in his mouth, and steels himself to kill what he imagines the fathers of his grandchildren with his bare hands.
Like Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, Brando is shot from below and at extreme angles that exaggerate his massive girth; in an early shot Brando takes up as much space as Sheen and Church combined. Here that presence is as much iconic as physical: even if he didn't weigh 400 pounds, have bright orange hair, or a giant walrus mustache, Brando would still tower majestically over the cut-rate proceedings like Gulliver amongst the Lilliputians.
After the wedding, Brando's daughters decide to move back in with their proud papa, which means abiding by the house rules: no fornication outside a proscribed monthly roll in the hey. When Church sneaks off for a quickie with one of the gals, Brando smashes through the wall in a fit rage. Ever wonder what it would look like if Marlon Brando played the Kool-Aid Man (a premise I suspect has already been used by Family Guy)? Look no further.
Later, in what can only be described as the pinnacle of his career, Brando–whose mountainous torso, shocking orange hair and walrus mustache make him resemble the misbegotten offspring of Ronald McDonald and Wilford Brimley–shocks Sheen and Church on their backsides, bible in hand as punishment for various transgressions. The dignity parade continues a few scenes later when Brando smashes through the wooden stalls of a bathroom in search of Sheen and Church, or as he lovingly calls them, "stinkball fornicators."
Tired of their sad existential destiny as stinkball fornicators withering under Brando's dictatorial rule, Sheen and Church plot to rob a money train delivering worn-out currency. Donald Sutherland and Mira Sorvino appear to be laboring under the delusion they're in a somber drama as, respectively, a powerful judge and his estranged daughter, a hard-nosed FBI agent investigating Brando's transparently murderous, crazy tyrant. Sorvino maintains a look of steely determination even in a bit of bumbling slapstick where a deranged, pistol-toting Brando falls from the top of a bathroom stall into a toilet headfirst before crashing on the ground and lying limp while Sorvino reads what's written on the back of his balding scalp: "Jesus Saves."
Once Sheen and Church pull off their heist, Free Money shifts from one kind of bad Coen Brothers knock-off to another. It morphs from a zany, broad comedy filled with colorful grotesques, a gaudy color palette, corrupt authority figures, and extreme stylization into a dark thriller about dirty deeds committed by sad souls eager to break out of the small-town straightjacket of their miserable lives.
There's something strangely moving about Sheen and Church's comically modest conception of happiness. For Sheen, it's all about "the blue and the gold"–the reassuring glow of a television screen and the golden amber of a moderately priced American beer, the two keys to lasting happiness for working-class schmucks who set their sites low enough.
It doesn't take long for Brando to figure out that Sheen was the man behind the heist. Sheen is promptly thrown in jail and just as arbitrarily breaks out of prison with Church's help, leading to a happy ending where Sheen and Church live it up south of the border while Brando is imprisoned in the very prison he once lorded over as his personal fiefdom.
In a moment at once awesome and kind of lame, Brando is introduced in his final scene to the new warden: Martin Sheen. Yes, Colonel Kurtz (who, it should be noted, is fat and bald like old Fred Mertz) and Captain Willard are reunited in the unlikeliest of circumstances. It's Apocalypse Now redux, not unlike that one movie, Apocalypse Now Redux.
I realize that this description probably makes Free Money seem much more exciting than it actually is. In reality, the film is surprisingly dreary, a lethargic crime comedy distinguished only by Brando's deranged performance. It doesn't help the film's schizophrenic tone that Sheen and Church underplay their straight-man roles, Donald Sutherland and Sorvino play it entirely straight, and Brando lustily devours scenery. I'd love to be able to report that Free Money is an overlooked cult gem. But it's actually far duller than any film where Marlon Brando beats Mira Sorvino with her own shoe has any right to be.
So what's an actor like Brando doing in a movie like this? As regular readers of this column are well aware, I have posited a controversial theory that at some point in the '70s, Brando stopped acting of his own free will and began taking marching orders from the Great Gazoo, the effeminate green alien only Fred Flintstone and Brando can see. To expand the Gazoo theory a little further, Brando probably thought the alien was a Native American trickster God since Gazoo introduced himself by his Indian name: He Who Fucks With Fred Flintstone's Mind.
The Great Gazoo or, as he is alternately known, He Who Fucks With Fred Flintstone's Mind, probably looked at Free Money in his role as the legendary actor's secret adviser and advised his gullible charge "Hey dum dum, here's another winner for you. Sure-fire Oscar bait for sure, genius." The rest is pop culture history, albeit of the obscure and forgotten variety.
If nothing else Free Money serves as an indelible document of the sad period in Brando's career where the man who revolutionized film acting had exactly three modes: big, ginormous and so comically, ridiculously huge that his overacting can be detected from other galaxies, including one housing a tiny little lime-colored smartass almost single-handedly ruining one of pop culture's most enduring icons.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure