Out of all potential cinematic-icon mash-ups, I certainly least expected to see Don Corleone meets Ferris Bueller. One of these characters is a cold-blooded sociopath, a shameless and corrupt manipulator who controls everyone around him, including friends and family, to achieve his aims, and the other character is a mob boss. But when a movie casts Matthew Broderick as an all-American student, just a few years removed from his most famous role, and Marlon Brando, after a lengthy absence from motion pictures, as a mafia kingpin, that's exactly what comes to mind and what we get in The Freshman (1990).
Clark Kellogg (Broderick) arrives in New York City to attend NYU film school but is soon ripped off by a small-time hood (Bruno Kirby). When he tracks the thief down, the guy offers Clark a job working for his uncle who turns out to be Carmine Sabatini (Brando), the powerful and feared local mob boss. Soon, Clark is illegally transporting komodo dragons, being sought after by Carmine's daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller), and being chased by the feds.
I refer to Brando's character as Carmine Sabatini, but he might as well be playing Don Corleone. From his makeup to his voice to his mannerisms to how he's lit, Brando is reprising his iconic role. This criminal dignity Brando brings contrasts nicely with the wackier stuff going on. For weird images, I don't think it's possible to top Brando in full godfather regalia walking a lizard on a leash into the sunset amidst rows of corn. Or how when making his proposition to Clark, he randomly grabs and crushes a handful of nuts.
On the other hand, Broderick is far away from Ferris Bueller territory. Instead of the cocky teen shyster who gets everything his way, he's a fairly white-bread guy dragged in deeper and deeper over his head. This is one of those characters where he's the only one not in on the scheme. Everyone around him is trying to play him in some way.
The way the two characters interact provides most of the humor. Carmine is so assured and quiet in his power and authority, he has never problem simply talking Clark into do things that are likely illegal. Clark is so in awe and petrified, he'll do anything Carmine says to get out of the mess he's in.
The filmmakers thankfully resist the urge to turn the film into a series of bits. From Clark's arrival in New York to the final encounter at the dinner in which patrons will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to dine on endangered animals (Maximilian Schell has a hilarious turn as the bizarre chef Larry London), this builds from the mundane to the outlandishly criminal. There's also some effective ambiguity throughout; does Carmine mean it when he calls Clark the son he never had or is setting him up for the fall?
The Freshman could have gone two ways, a thriller or a comedy, and the filmmakers went with comedy. Marlon Brando famously became something of a reclusive parody of himself late in life, but here, it's just nice to see him having fun.