One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: School’s out for summer. Celebrate the end of a semester (or just the release of Neighbors 2) with these unconventional campus comedies.
The same year that The Godfather: Part III debuted to less-than-stellar reviews, The Freshman featured a proper homage to Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone, performed by none other than Brando himself. Andrew Bergman had already written the perfect ordinary-guy-gets-dragged-into-villainous-yet-hilarious-conspiracy film: 1979’s The In-Laws. He successfully revisited this setup in 1990 with The Freshman (which he also directed), with Matthew Broderick in the hapless role that Alan Arkin pulled off so well about a decade earlier. (Even the scores sound similar, though they’re penned by two different composers.)
Broderick is the freshman of the title—a freshman not just at NYU film school but also in life. Fleeing a staid Vermont existence living with a stepfather who not even his mother seems to like, Broderick’s Clark Kellogg gets ripped off mere minutes after arriving in New York, losing all of his belongings to Vic (Bruno Kirby, kind of filling in the Peter Falk role). When Clark spots Vic again, he gets pulled into a somewhat-shady part-time job, enticed by the enigmatic Carmine Sabatini (Brando), who is, of course, a spot-on version of Vito Corleone himself, right down to the mumbled dialogue, the cheek scratching, and a neighborhood stroll by the orange stand.
Making the movie even more meta, everyone notices the Godfather resemblance but are all advised not to remark on it. Carmine won’t even admit to being anything other than a legitimate businessman, even though he has an armed guard watching his house and the real Mona Lisa in his living room. His daughter, Tina (Penelope Ann Miller), is a much more entertaining crime-family princess than Mary Corleone (poor Sofia Coppola). But beneath zany romps involving a Komodo dragon, corrupt FBI agents, and Paul Benedict’s inspired send-up of an egomaniac professor (“Have you read Fleeber On Film by Fleeber?”) helpfully pointing out the Godfather parallels of the movie he’s in, there’s a different kind of love story.
The Godfather is ultimately about family, after all. Fatherless Clark finally finds a parent figure he can look up to in Carmine; he’s drawn to the older man’s compassion, his genuine interest in people, his ease in expressing his warm feelings for Clark. Even Carmine’s dialogue-free walk through his neighborhood, trailed by Clark, is a breathtaking portrait of the sheer force of his personality. The quiet highlight of the movie is Clark reciting one of his dead father’s poems to an appreciative Carmine. After a short chat, the patriarch stands up, looks around the dorm room, chuckles, and says, “So this is college. I didn’t miss nothin.’” After all, he’s teaching Clark more valuable life lessons than school ever could.
Availability: The Freshman is available on DVD from your local (or campus) library/video store. It’s also available to rent or purchase from the major digital outlets.