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Free Enterprise

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 5 November 1999

Free Enterprise  

Directed by Robert Meyer Burnett

Starring Rafer Weigel, 
Eric McCormack, Audie England, 
Patrick Van Horn, Phil Lamarr, 
and William Shatner

Written by Mark A. Altman 
Robert Meyer Burnett

Write about what you know. So goes the advice for young writers and filmmaking hopefuls. Unfortunately, for a generation of middle class kids with remarkably similar backgrounds, that’s led to an overabundance of two distinctive strands of contemporary indie cinema. The most familiar is the genre-bending, blood and guts the children of Quentin Tarentino, the post-post film school generation of video hounds who go beyond quoting older films to recycling films and genres with equal parts Mixmaster-and match reworking, narrative noodling, and hip, ironic distance. Less prevalent but equally distinctive are the stories of underachieving college educated adults wistfully looking back on their adolescent innocence. Rife with guys sitting around chawing over pop culture detritus while studiously avoiding making any -- ANY -- life changes that might lead to greater responsibility and less free time, this uniquely 1990s genre has given us a few minor gems (Reality Bites, Swingers) but for most part tells us more about their creators than we really care to know.

So you have to hand it to Robert Meyer Burnett and Mark A. Altman, the director and writer, respectively, of Free Enterprise. They don’t expand the genre in any appreciable way, but they shamelessly remove the cover of “universality” of most of these films (working in malls, quoting sitcoms and pop music) to explore the lives of movie and media saturated SF geeks with dreams of making it in Hollywood via cheap horror films and self-referential movies. This is about them: part wistful remembrance, part critical pop-psychology, and part wish fulfillment fantasy.

It’s this fantasy, specifically, that has attracted the most attention to this much talked about but little seen indie picture. A pair of flashbacks introduce our geek heroes early on in their fanboy development. Gawky Robert plots to get into the opening day show of Star Trek: The Motion Picture when a vision of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk appears to offer advice. “I’m one of the top ten imaginary friends for kids your age,” he explains to the dumbfounded devotee. Diminutive Mark, wearing a “Star Trek” crew jersey to school, scraps with a much larger bully and receives sage wisdom from Kirk… who immediately retracts it in pure testosterone-laden Kirk fashion when his vanity is wounded by the “Star Wars” loving bully.

Years later these guys are on the edge of thirty, still embracing a lifestyle of movies and memorabilia, adding only late night drinking and electronic toys to the mix. Robert (Rafer Weigel) is a film editor and aspiring filmmaker with Full Eclipse, a straight to video company with a more than passing resemblance to Full Moon (one of many, many, many insider jokes), and Mark (Liev Schriever look-alike Eric McCormack) is the workaholic editor of GEEK magazine. Their lives reach a wet dream apex when they run into William Shatner at a bookstore (he’s furtively checking out the porno magazines) and take him out for drinks as they feign interest in his dream project: a full length musical version of Shakespeare’s  Julius Caeser. “I play Caesar… and all the rest of the parts. Except for Calpurnia. Obviously I can’t play Calpurnia. I was thinking maybe Sharon Stone. Or Heather Thomas.”

Into this happy existence of movies and drinking and Toys-R-Us runs with their equally SF and Trek mad buddies (to pick up the latest collectable movie figures, natch) strolls Robert’s soulmate Claire (Audie England), a comic book nut, sci-fi junkie, and all around sexy babe: the Howard Hawks-ian woman for the Geek set. Inexplicably won over by the trying-too hard nerd Robert (he woos her with his Japanese import Planet of the Apes laserdisc collection), he quickly abandons his buddies for romantic bliss with Claire and his terminally single friends decide to free him from his “pussy-whipped” existence.

Or rather, they talk about it. Come to think of it, no one really does much of anything (with the exception of Mark, a self-driven slave to his magazine). Robert is just as irresponsible as ever, skipping work to goof with Claire in a giddy kind of courtship and missing electric bill payments to buy the latest collectable, and his cynical buddy Sean (Patrick Van Horn, looking very much like Oliver Platt) has no life outside his hard drinking late-night bull sessions and consistent strike-outs with jaded pick-up lines. The picture gets mired in an unending stream of carousing and late night drinks; it wastes too much time with their wasted time, with only occasionally inspired dialogue to turn these often droning diversions into moments of insight, or at least entertaining breaks. Like many products of the twentysomething generation, it’s a 90 minute film lazing through a 2 hour running time. With tighter writing, brisk direction, and some ruthless editing, this film could have been so much better.

Beyond the dense web of SF cultural references (everything from arguments about episode names from the Star Trek TV series to a hilarious fear of adulthood dream where Robert imagines himself in Logan’s Run while his buddies hunt him down), the film revisits familiar territory -- with the brilliant exception of Shatner. Not simply Shatner the actor or Shatner the role, but the remarkable synergy between the two. William Shatner plays William Shatner as a vulnerable, vainglorious ham, a sad clown who gets along with everybody but strikes out in romance (“Women don’t see me the way you guys do”), drinks to excess and spins his fantasy projects with hope against hopelessness (“I’ve got a great xylophone player and great bongo player for the pitch meeting”). Shatner plays the histrionic theatrical “actor” with such loving bemusement that you have to love him, embracing a love/hate relationship with his iconographic status as Captain Kirk with a mixture of pride and chagrin. Rarely has an actor taken such delight in puncturing his ego while transforming himself into a humble, sweet guy trapped in the overacting ego of a media icon.

It’s not too hard to understand why this feature never became a mainstream hit. The references are too arcane for those not “in the know” and the self-reflexive Shatner performance will mean little to anyone not part of the Trek mythology in even the smallest way. But that specificity is also what makes the film so purely enjoyable in moments. Burnett and Altman have made a film about what they know, and by the conclusion you may be convinced, like I, that this film is really about them. Maybe it’s just because I connect a little more than I’d care to admit with these guys, because I actually understand their references and recognize their lifestyle, but I kind of like them. And sometimes that’s enough.

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