One vote for Free Enterprise as geekdom’s greatest film.
September 16, 2004
orig. November 26, 2003
“I won’t grow up!” — Peter Pan
“You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.” — John Greier
**This review contains an occasional spoiler**
This one’s a no-brainer.
What more could a geekboy ask for in a movie? Fanboy angst, extreme Peter Pan syndrome, tittie shots, Eric McCormack before he was Will Truman, William Shatner before he was Mr. Priceline.com, a drop-dead gorgeous fangirl, and more obvious and obscure science fiction and other pop culture references per minute than have appeared on the big screen before or since.
Free Enterprise, the of the geek, by the geek, and for the geek romantic comedy from 1998, has all that and more.
Okay, so it’s a little on the talky side, but we geeks can live with that, can’t we? After all, didn’t we jump all over Clerks, the talkiest movie ever made this side of My Dinner with Andre? Just throw a few obscure pop culture references our way every now and then so that we can laugh louder than everyone else in the Cineplex at them and we’ll be happy. And since Clerks can’t hold a candle to Free Enterprise for other-than-Star Wars references, Mark Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett’s roman a clef leaves Kevin Smith and his hand-held camera standing on the shoulder of the highway to geek movie nirvana, sadly waving at our rear windshield.
Free Enterprise is geek reality and fantasy intertwined, although I would imagine few geeks today share Burnett and Altman’s dream of hangin’ with William Shatner, weird old dude that he’s become. (Replace with Peter Jackson or the Wachowski Brothers for suitability.)
Southern Cali, late 90s. Two fanboy friends, each 29 years old, with the dream of making movies; both are Star Trek Original Series junkies (along with a whole bunch of other movies and television shows in fannish culture). Rob (played with cuddly charm by Rafer Weigel) lives life like a ten year-old — an arrested development case, big-time. He spends the meager salary he earns editing film for a small — no, micro — “B” movie studio on collectable comic books and laser discs, instead of paying his rent or utility bills. While he has sexual encounters with beautiful women, he doesn’t know how to maintain a mature relationship with any of them — or doesn’t care to. He has arguments about action figures with grade-schoolers in toy stores. He uses his movie-making dream to rationalize his dead-end lifestyle.
Mark (McCormack) edits — are you ready — Geek Monthly magazine, a semi-successful publication for fanboys and fangirls. He pitches movie ideas like Bradykiller (“the killer only stalks women named Marcia, Jan and Cindy”) to indie film producers like Rob’s boss. And Mark’s the responsible one — as well as whiny and borderline anal. He’s loaned Rob more than three thousand dollars over the years so that slackerboy can cover his necessities. (And take girls out to lunch.) Oh, and one other thing: Mark is scared to death of turning 30, as though some fanboy bar mitzvah might take place and banish him from fannish Never Neverland.
Enter Shatner, who proves to be just as screwed up as Rob and Mark, unless constant drinking and an obsession with the idea of making a musical version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar can somehow be construed as normal. He grows comfortable talking with Rob and looks to Mark as a sort of “life coach.” An imaginary Shatner gave the boys sage advice at the beginning of the film — a pathetically real Shatner is now soliciting advice from these two by the start of the second reel.
Enter Claire (Audie England), the geek goddess Rob closely encounters over a limited edition Sandman hardcover at the local comic book store. This beautiful, self-assured dreamboat proves to be his match in genre trivia, tidbit for tidbit. Rob falls head-over-heels in love with her, and she, inexplicably, with him. He can’t maintain a mature relationship. They fight and break up. Angst.
There’s a neat little Logan’s Run dream sequence with Rob as Logan 5 and Mark as… Mark. And more angst. The movie ends with a huge party scene, at which Mark connects with Rob’s junior high paramour in Star Trek green make-up (it’s a long story, much of which ended up on the cutting room floor) and Shatner gives us a preview of what would become his Priceline.com rapper schtick. Will Rob and Claire get back together? What do you think?
No, there’s one more ending after that; the feel-good, happily-ever-after ending.
Of course, the ultimate fantasy element in Free Enterprise is that Burnett and Altman made themselves the central characters of their movie. And although it’s been written that this movie is autobiographical, it is really a series of well-masked but true anecdotes strung together to support a fictitious story with characters that are actual friends of the writers, but thinly disguised (if disguised at all).
There’s no Animal House slob humor in Free Enterprise. No Tron action sequences, no Revenge of the Nerds geek stereotypes. Just an awful lot of fannish references, self-depreciating humor and geek angst. The geeks I know appreciate and enjoy watching this movie, me included.
Back in the mid-nineties, my wife Barb and I traveled up and down the east coast to various Star Trek and sci-fi conventions, hawking the science fiction trivia board game we created and had manufactured, and supporting our efforts by putting on quiz shows for the attendees of the cons. We crossed paths several times with certain actors and writers who were also frequent con guests. One of them was a young man who was promoting a book he had written titled Captains Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages and a few of the comic books for which he had provided the text. We both became rather interested in what the other was doing within the genre. At a convention in Ocean City, Maryland during the summer of 1996, Barb and I told him of our plans to create an audio version of the game. He insisted on recording several of the trivia questions for our demo version using the tape recorder we happened to have with us at the time, virtually on the spot. He also volunteered to test the game for us when it was finished. Then, he donated a pile of his comic books for us to use as prizes for our quiz show that day, taking over as our Master of Ceremonies, quite a relief to me. Not unexpectedly, he did a fantastic job.
That day, he mentioned he was working on another project, something completely different from comic book texts and an unauthorized television episode guide. Little did we know at the time it was the idea for the screenplay that would evolve into Free Enterprise. That was the final time our path would cross with Mark Altman’s. The audio version of the game never did get off the ground. I’m delighted for Mark that Free Enterprise did.