By Ralph Novak
July 30, 1990 12:00 PM

Matthew Broderick, Marlon Brando

Have faith. Keep in mind those bizarre recipes where you mix unlikely stuff—a peanut butter-chicken stew, for instance—and end up with something great.

In the case of this inspired comedy, the plot is a dignified bonkers combination of The Graduate, The Sting, The Godfather and The Producers: A naive young man comes to New York City to go to film school, gets suckered by a cheap crook, then gets introduced to a mobster you wouldn’t believe.

Actually, you might believe him since it’s Brando, parodying his own Godfather role so closely that other characters keep starting to tell him. “Say, you look just like…” before henchmen shut them up. When someone asks Brando if he is making a promise, he pauses—anyone else forgotten what great comic timing he has?—and slowly replies in his raspy Don Corleone voice: “Every word I say, by definition, is a promise.”

In this case, Brando’s criminal associates are involved in an endangered-species smuggling operation that has a deal with a gourmet dining society—$1 million a plate and up for a last specimen. He also has a sexy young daughter, Penelope Ann (Dead-Bang) Miller, that cheap crook of a nephew, Bruno (When Harry Met Sally…) Kirby, and a scheme to get even with some crooked cops.

It all leads up to—what else?—Bert Parks entertaining at a gourmet club feast by singing “Tequila” as well as a variation on his old Miss America song that introduces the feast’s entree, a monitor lizard.

It may seem more understandable when you know that this film’s director-writer was Andrew Bergman, who helped write Blazing Saddles. The Freshman indeed displays the Brooksian quality of staying funny even as it drifts in and out of comedic focus.

One reason—Bergman’s Gene Wilder is Broderick, who blends innocence with an ability to be a bit malicious. He puts real philosophy into saying. “There’s a kind of freedom in being completely screwed. You know things can’t get any worse.”

Miller is slyly witty too, telling Broderick that someone “called my father to say how intelligent you are, perceptive and gentle. If you weren’t all those things, do you think my cousin would be out getting you a gun permit?”

As for Brando—seeing him act in a film these days suggests what it might be like to see the Washington Monument show up to march in a parade. He may seem out of place, and he isn’t always on track, but he sure can keep your attention. (PG-13)