Marlon Brando’s performance in The Freshman may look like a parody of The Godfather’s Don Corleone, but, in fact, Brando plays it straight. (Well, 99.9 percent straight.) It’s the context that turns his acting into a goof. At this point Brando hardly needs to satirize his classic 1972 performance. The character of the Godfather is such a touchstone in our culture that his very presence — at least in the middle of a poky farce like The Freshman — is richly, incongruously funny. Even Brando’s immense physique becomes part of the joke. He’s not just outsize, he’s epic — a literal embodiment of mobster omnipotence.

Playing a prominent New York ”importer” named Carmine Sabatini, Branan exaggerates — without ever quite letting you see him do it — the eerie relaxation of Don Corleone. Sabatini is a man who controls everyone from politicians to Harvard administrators; he even has the Mona Lisa — yes, the Mona Lisa — hanging on his living-room wall. Early on, he informs Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick), a freshman at NYU film school, that Clark would do well to take the employment Sabatini has chosen him for — a simple task that involves picking up a package at the airport and delivering it to specified location in New Jersey. Clark, who has been hustled over to Sabatini’s headquarters by the great man’s nephew (Bruno Kirby), doesn’t quite realize it, but he has no say in the matter; he has been given a Job Offer He Can’t Refuse. Yet Sabatini’s manner, at least for a while, is the opposite of threatening.

He offers Clark some nuts (it must be written into Brando’s contract that his characters get to have a bowl of snacks on the table — they were there in The Formula and A Dry White Season, too), and he keeps dumping spoonfuls of sugar into the poor kid’s espresso. Sabatini’s distracted, slow-voiced courtliness — the words easing from his lips with as little energy as he can muster and still get them out — is the mark of a man so powerful that he’s completely insulated from any indecision or fear. This was true of Don Corleone as well, only now the character’s imperiousness seems ever-so-slightly silly; the implicit threat of violence in everything he says becomes a joke that hovers over the entirirmovie. Unfortunately, it’s just about the only joke in the movie.

The Freshman is a dawdling, occasionally amusing stunt. The plot, which puts Broderick’s guileless young Clark through a series of comically interlocked disasters, recalls the Rube Goldberg-nightmare scenario of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. But writer-director Andrew Bergman (So Fine) stages the routines overdeliberately, as though they were much funnier than they actually are. (In a running gag, Sabatini keeps forgetting what state Clark is from.) In the central episode, Clark and his roommate pick up Sabatini’s package from the airport, and it turns out to be a six-foot-long lizard. There is much elaborate slapstick as the two attempt to get the scaly monster into their car. When it escapes they end up chasing it through a shopping mall, where the animal wanders around terrifying the customers.

Why has Clark been picked for this sticky assignment? And why does the mighty Sabatini start treating him like a long-lost relative, joyfully explaining that he has been chosen to marry his sexy daughter (Penelope Ann Miller) and become part of the family for life? The answers to these and other questions prove more mechanical than funny. Matthew Broderick acts with his usual Bar Mitzvah-boy earnestness; he’s smart and appealing, but he lacks the lightness needed for farce. The Freshman has its moments — I enjoyed Paul Benedict’s performance as a pompously self-infatuated film professor — but mostly it plods along like that lizard. Still, whenever Brando shows up the screen just about twinkles. B-

The Freshman
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