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The blog below was under an older name of Hollyweird. I have kept the numbering the same so that I could keep track of my posts, but this is where it all begin back in the heyday of 2012…
Throughout my years I, like many of us, have been involved in the ‘Who are you most like from [INSERT TV SHOW HERE]’ conversation. At different cultural stages I have been a Leonardo from TMNT, a Chandler from Friends and a Mike from Spaced. Most recently I am apparently a Leonard from The Big Bang Theory. Aside from the ability to occasionally pick up women out of my league, I don’t really see the comparison myself. Then again, I am not particularly socially inept, Indian or Jewish, so being a geeky four-eyes is all that’s really left.
The success of The Big Bang Theory has helped to present geek culture in a more sympathetic light, presenting the nerds as plucky underdogs with a lot to learn about real life. Clearly The Big Bang nerds are huge stereotypes and loaded with foibles, but for the most part they are a distinctly likeable bunch. A film from over a decade ago attempted a similar such feat, but with decidedly mixed results. In fact, as opposed to the clueless, pleasant nerds from the B.B. gang, 1999’s Free Enterprise presented its own nerdy-protagonists as socially smooth but hard to connect to. Let’s beam on over and take a gander…
The plot for Free Enterprise can be pretty much boiled down to this; two lifelong friends and Trekkies, Mark and Robert, are worried about their lives. They each juggle unfulfilled film careers with disappointing love lives. As Mark approaches 30, he is concerned that his best days are past him with little to show for it except a comfortable lifestyle. Meanwhile Robert needs to learn to accept responsibility or else face a future of poverty and one-night stands.
A chance meeting leads them to encountering Mr. William Shatner. Seeking their heroes wisdom, they slowly realise that Captain Kirk is perhaps not as smart or cool as they had hoped- in fact, he’s pretty much f’n mental. Shatner’s goal is to put on a one-man play of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a musical. This, despite the innate challenge of then having to stab himself in the back….
Can the Trekkies learn to grow up via/despite Shatner’s advice? Can Shatner get his project off the ground? I’m sure you can all guess.
The paper-thin plot really does not matter all that much. This is a character-driven comedy, after all. Actually, I don’t believe that I mentioned Free Enterprise is a comedy, but hopefully the summary of Shatner’s theatrical ambition gave it away. Then again, with the real William Shatner any scheme is possible.
Beating the clichés of The Big Bang Theory by a good decade, the two central protagonists in Free Enterprise are not socially-inept misfits at all. Sure, both Robert and Mark have huge life problems to confront concerning those old stalwarts of companionship and finances. But these problems are nothing beyond those that a heck of a lot of the world’s population face. Avoiding stereotyping, Robert is a full on lady killer. He bounces from lover to lover with all manner of different kinky indulgences hinted at. Robert even has a drinking buddy that he shares threesomes with, the too-too-cool-for-school Sean, played by Swingers Patrick Van Horn.
Similarly, the more grounded Mark is incapable of getting emotionally close to women, but he is not incapable of getting dates with them. Mark may not be a full on party monster like Robert, but he comes across as a believable guy simply too wrapped up in his own ego to love.
In this way the film is somewhat more believable than The Big Bang Theory or films like The 40 Year Old Virgin. Generally the comedy present in Free Enterprise is aimed at laughing along with the character’s dialogue or actions, rather than laughing at them for ‘not getting it’ in the wider world.
Rounding off the core characters is, of course, the one and only William Shatner. Ol’ Shatty plays himself- or at least a heightened, hard drinking, clumsy, porn-reading, parachuting version of himself. Shatner easily has the least screen time of the main characters. In fact he is virtually relegated to occasional cameos. Still, much like Adam West, Shatner has the ability to be astoundingly ridiculous and utterly deadpan within the same breath and consequently steals most of the film. Shatner may be a terrible actor but he sure is a wonderful presence.
Oh, and did I mention that he raps Shakespeare’s Julius Ceaser in it? That should be a golden selling point in itself as far as sheer Hollyweird value goes.
Still, if all of this makes Free Enterprise sounds like some fun-filled geek-romp that paints nerds in a glowing light, then you have my apologies. You’ve been misled! (Or is that misread?) Free Enterprise misfires in many areas, and has its enjoyment factor seriously hampered by it.
As refreshing as Mark and Rob’s depiction as nerds is, the surrounding characters are incredibly lazily presented. Mark and Rob’s friends are as follows; black nerd, Jewish nerd, silent nerd, meek nerd and nerd who cannot get laid. I’m not even entirely sure that they have names. Though ‘black nerd’ is played by the vastly underrated comedian and voice actor Phil Lamaar. Lamaar voices one of this author’s favourite cartoon characters, Samurai Jack. Damn good job, Phil, damn good job!
As lazy as the friends of Mark and Rob are presented, the depiction of women in the film is far worse. With one exception, the women within the film are either reduced to sexual objects or depicted as heartless/thoughtless creatures.
I should note that to my mind Free Enterpriseis not overt or misogynist by design. Woman kind is not directly insulted within the film. Instead it seems to be more of a case of the screen writers not knowing how to present women beyond being dumb, beautiful or bitchy. The worst part about this is that a major part of the film revolves around Rob finding his ideal woman, Trisha.
Trisha is stunning and nerdy, smart and independent. These traits should make Trisha the most positive character in the film. She should represent a shattering of both female and nerd stereotypes in one fell swoop. Yet instead she is presented as a ‘token ideal’ form of womanhood, and not even remotely realistically as her own person. We never learn what she does or what motivates her, and in fact she repeatedly lets Rob pay for everything despite his established money issues. Finally, she dumps him when he loses his job.
Now in both Trisha’s and Free Enterprise’s defence, Trisha does have a speech about how breaking up with Rob has nothing to do with money and has everything to do with Rob’s attitude. Yet Trisha still crops up throughout the entirety of Free Enterprise as a perfect, sexual fantasy character when the film requires it, and is then subsequently dismissed when Rob is at his lowest.
Once again this is most likely due to paper-thin writing and poor-acting rather than an attempt to present women in a bad light. Unfortunately, by making the one strong female role seem as deep and believable as puddle made of anti-matter, Free Enterprise paradoxically ends up doing a terrible disservice to real female geeks. Regardless of its quite-possible good intention to show that beautiful women can be geeks too, it all it achieves is showing that women are blank slates that look good in their underwear and not worth the time to actually flesh out.
(Maybe now is a good time to pint out that the writer and director behind this movie are called Mark A. Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett. Is Free Enterprise just Wish fulfilment at the expense of everything else, perhaps…?)
The secondary major problem with Free Enterprise is that so many of the comedic deliveries are just off. Rafer Weigel, playing Rob, is believably immature and handsome. So his casting as a childish Womaniser is actually strong in a dramatic sense. But he is simply not very funny. Meanwhile Patrick Van Horn seems to be present for stunt-casting purposes. He is almost identical to his character of Sue in Swingers and really has very little purpose here.
In fact aside from the excellent use of Shatner, the only other true saving grace of the film is Eric McCormack of Will & Grace fame. He actually has excellent comic timing which is pretty damn important in a comedy! Sadly even McCormack is let down by the fact that he comes across as so un-likeable for large stages of the movie. The character of Mark puts people down constantly which works for someone like Bill Murray or Woody Allen because their appearance means they need a defence mechanism. Actors like that playing roles akin to Mark’s merely come across as smart but insecure. However, from a tall, good looking actor like McCormick, Mark’s comments just seems cruelly condescending.
As quite the geek myself, I would love to love Free Enterprise more. It is packed with great moments (the Logan’s Run gag is truly inspired) and a lot of the pop-culture dialogue crackles along nicely. I particularly love the times that characters quote other moves with no clarification of where they are stealing from. You either get the line or you don’t, just like in real life geek conversations.
Oh, and of course it has a F’N RAPPING WIILIAM SHATNER IN IT!!!
It is just a shame that Free Enterprise falls apart over teeny-tiny aspects like, um, its casting and characterisation. Regrettably, the success of the few bits are outweighed by the flaws of the many.
Next time we will all laugh whilst we can, monkey men!
Thanks for reading,