`The Freshman' Is Funny, Fresh And Unforced

XXX 1/2 ``The Freshman,'' with Marlon Brando, Matthew Broderick, Bruno Kirby, Penelope Ann Miller, Frank Whaley. Written and directed by Andrew Bergman. Crossroads, Factoria, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Kirkland Parkplace, Oak Tree, Varsity. ``PG'' - Parental guidance advised, due to language.


Andrew Bergman's ``The Freshman'' is a charmed comedy, the kind of seemingly effortless movie in which everything falls neatly into place, as if ordained by nature.

If there's anything wrong with it, it's that it's a little slack in spots. It sometimes feels as if Bergman, who wrote and directed, were stepping back to watch, and enjoying himself so much he forgot to tighten it. Despite the public protests of its star, Marlon Brando, who complained loudly last year that it was a ``stinker,'' there is no on-screen evidence of trouble on the set.

Brando gives the straightest performance in this account of the survival skills of an innocent New York University film student (Matthew Broderick at his most engaging). He's playing Don Corleone almost exactly as he played him 18 years ago in ``The Godfather,'' with the same makeup, voice and

lighting. The movie's central joke is that everyone recognizes him as this legendary figure, who is blithely accepted as half fact, half fiction.

This time the character is called Carmine Sabbatini and he's a New York ``importer'' who has the Mona Lisa installed in his living room (the one behind the bullet-proof glass in the Louvre is a fake) and calls up Harvard when his daughter feels like going to school. When this God-like presence hires the down-on-his-luck Broderick to run a few errands for him, the boy finds himself gradually trapped in the family business.

The script occasionally plays like a parody of ``Godfather II,'' which is shown in Broderick's film class, and Broderick's chief recruiter is played by Bruno Kirby, who had a key role in ``Godfather II.'' Whether or not the references will mean anything to a generation that did not grow up with these films, ``The Freshman'' works on its own terms.

Broderick's dilemma is genuinely funny-scary, and Bergman's script, which alternates between rapid-fire verbal wit and inspired urban slapstick, makes full use of an excellent supporting cast - including Paul Benedict as a hilariously pompous film professor, Frank Whaley as Broderick's perpetually distracted roommate and, of all people, Bert Parks in his film debut. Bergman seems willing to try anything; the result is a comedy that's almost startlingly fresh.

- John Hartl