Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick) is a film student who leaves his mother and nutty pro-mammal extremist environmental activist stepfather Dwight (Kenneth Welsh) in Vermont to attend film school at New York University. While at Grand Central Terminal, a dodgy but affable Italian-American, Victor Ray (Bruno Kirby) offers to work as Clark's bagman and driver. Only once Clark is out, Victor leaves. In a desperate rush to get his stolen goods, pushed on by his Godfather-obsessed tutor (Paul Benedict), Clark finds Victor and discovers that he can get them back if he does a job for Victor's uncle - respected businessman Carmine Sabatini. Arriving at Sabatini's workplace, he discovers that Sabatini (Marlon Brando) is legendary gangster "Jimmy the Toucan", a dead ringer for Marlon Brando in the Godfather, though no one will say this, as Sabatini is embarrassed that he was the inspiration for the character. Discovering what the job is - Kellogg and his classmate (Frank Whaley) find they are to pick up a near-extinct komodo dragon and deliver it to a mysterious chef, Larry London (Maximilian Schell). The truth turns out to be weirder than anyone expects.
Though at first glance a straightforward crime comedy along the lines of My Cousin Vinny (1992), The Freshman is so much stranger. For one, it is a mainstream Hollywood film where the lead character proudly hangs a poster of Just Jaeckin's The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak (1984) on his dorm wall. Second, the actual twist is the sort of perverse genius that Roald Dahl would have thrown his fist in anger that he didn't come up with it - namely that "Jimmy the Toucan" runs a multi-million dollar banquet for the ultra-rich, serving the last known specimen of a near-extinct species. Obviously, there's the typical Hollywood comedy touches, such as Sabatini's pretty nineteen-year-old daughter (Penelope Ann Miller) who serves as love interest for Clark, but even then she goes from being exposition - i.e. why a realistic copy of the Mona Lisa hangs over her family's living room mantelpiece, to being Clark's prospective bride in a forced marriage.
The weirdness may lie with the choice of Andrew Bergman as director. Bergman had previously written Blazing Saddles and directed the similarly odd The In-Laws (1978), a film tempered by the over-theatrical mugging of America's Peter Sellers, Alan Arkin, only for Bergman's odd sense of humour to bring him down with the jawdropping Ryan O'Neal vehicle So Fine (1981), a film which while oddly similar in structure to The Freshman, links a series of ridiculous setpieces with laboured comedy. In between, Bergman wrote the likes of Fletch (1985) and Soapdish (1991), all of which he tried his best, adding slightly odd touches to otherwise anodyne Hollywood comedies. Here, Bergman gets its right, with a cast of actors rather than comics. Perhaps also shooting most of it in Montreal dips away much of the bland overlit gloss found in US comedies of the era (the almost similarly meta Soapdish an example, although its apt TV-like nature may be explained by the credit "Produced by Aaron Spelling"). This is Bergman's best film, he'd follow it with the big in their day but now almost forgotten VHS charity shop staples of Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) and Striptease (1996).
As said, the film is helped by its cast. Broderick is likeable, Paul Benedict, an underused talent almost steals it as Feebler, his obsessive, passionate teacher, but then again this is a film where there are lots of performances trying to steal from the other. Kenneth Welsh, there for Canadian Content reasons gets the sense of mania that so many characters in this film seem to emanate. He's an environmentalist who is so extreme that he resembles the sort of gun-nut he probably resents. Maximilian Schell is OTT as the mad "foreign" chef, BD Wong is fun as his lover/assistant, and Bruno Kirby is an appealing wiseass. Brando is at first almost too good, that it doesn't work, but ultimately once he is called on to be more of a character, he shines, especially as he wistfully recalls reading Curious George, in his Don Vito Corleone persona.
And the climax, featuring the great Jon Polito and Richard Gant as Department of Justice agents who are also turncoats for a rival gang boss is so overblown, with Miss America host Bert Parks crowning the komodo is a mix of grotesque parody and action comedy that gels quite well.
The film isn't perfect. But it doesn't make Clark and his friends reference-dropping geeks. And the twist ending is almost something of a sequel hook. The fact it didn't get a sequel maybe because it is sort of caught between two stools, too mainstream for cult appeal, too odd to be a mainstream hit. Although the similarly toned Addams Family hit big around the same time, in Hollywood, nobody knows.