by Edwin Jahiel

THE FRESHMAN (1990) ** 1/2. Written & directed by Andrew Bergman. Cast: Marlon Brando, Matthew Broderick, Bruno Kirby, Penelope Ann Miller, Frank Whaley, Jon Polito, Paul Benedict, Richard Grant, Kenneth Welsh, Pamela Payton-Wright, Maximilian Schell, Bert Parks, B.D. Wong. A Tri-Star release. 102 minutes. Rated PG (mild language). At Country Fair Theatres.

"The Freshman" is Clark Kellogg (Broderick), who leaves Vermont, his mom and his unpleasant, ecologist stepfather and comes to New York University to study film. Within minutes of his arrival, he is conned out of his money and his suitcase by Victor ( Kirby). Soon though--and oddly -- Clark spies Vic and gives chase. Victor has spent all the stolen money, but offers to make reparations by recommending Clark for a lucrative part-time job to Vic's uncle, Carmine Sabatini, a Mafioso "importer."

The uncle is, of course, Marlon Brando, who looks and acts like the Godfather, but with a difference. The script and Brando's performance are just enough askew to give you an eerie feeling of separate but equal double vision. Brando is both Don Corleone and a kind of weird, kindly and paternalistic derivative.

Don Carmine, making Clark an offer he cannot refuse, sends him to the airport to pick up a mysterious item which turns out to be a giant lizard of an endangered essentially driven by two motors. One is the Sabatini-Corleone connection which is the source of a great deal of wide-eyed reactions by the film's characters and the film's audience. The other is the seemingly straight-but-absurd, yet actually convoluted plot, which oght not to be revealed. In it, the innocent Clark gets involved with a seemingly mad scientist, strange law enforcers, Tina the Don's amorous daughter, extreme cuisine, and more . And he becomes the Godfather's godson, in a way.

The tone is more quietly humoristic than bitingly satirical. This also goes for the many peripheral, in-joke aspects with which writer-director Bergman is having semi-private fun. The main gag is a put-down of the film school at N.Y.U.-- where Bergman got his Ph.D. -- via a fatuous, mean and self-promoting jerk, Professor Fleeber (an excellent Paul Benedict) who screens "The Godfather" in class and whose teaching merely consists of knowing the dialogue by heart. His book-in-progress, "And The Wheels Go Slow: Form and Function in '42nd Street' " sounds exactly like the pompous papers read at academic conferences.

"42nd Street" is a two-stage gag, as that film is included in Bergman's own doctoral dissertation on Depression-era movies, "We're in the Money." Along the same lines, "Sabatini" comes from the novelist who inspired many Hollywood swashbuckler films; mentioning "a moment of epiphany" is a dig at film critics' jargon ; and the swipes at N.Y.U. peak when Clark says about Harvard : "I didn't even apply to it. With my grades!"

So far, so good. "The Freshman" deals with a sting operation that's full of red herrings. The trouble however is that Bergman has an excess of ideas but doesn't structure them tightly, so that the movie is not quite the sum of its parts -- unlike, for instance, "The Sting," which had both sinews and internal logic. Too much outlandishness combinedwith too flabby a direction and tempo slow down the farcical elements, often making them unfunny.

Andrew Bergman, who wrote the hilarious "The In-Laws" and "Fletch," and wrote and directed the rather funny "So Fine," says that in many of his comedies there is the common thread of " someone trapped in circumstances they [sic] can't seem to get out of." But sometimes the filmmakers too paint themselves into a corner.

[Review published August 2,1990]

February 1995 afterthought: I have the feeling that, were I to see this again, I might rate it at least mite higher because of its takeoff on Academe, something that I cannot remember seeing done in quite this funny fashion, before or since "The Freshman." It might be even funnier today, when Jargonauts, obscurantists and pedants abound.