The Freshman is a 1990 American crime comedy film written and directed by Andrew Bergman. starring Marlon Brando, Matthew Broderick, Bruno Kirby, Penelope Ann Miller, and Frank Whaley. The plot revolves around a young New York film student's entanglement in an illicit business of offering exotic and endangered animals as specialty food items, including his being tasked with delivering a Komodo dragon for this purpose.
Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick) leaves his mother (Pamela Payton-Wright) and environmental activist stepfather Dwight (Kenneth Welsh) in Vermont to go to New York University (NYU) to study film. After arriving at Grand Central Terminal, he is approached by Victor Ray (Bruno Kirby), who at first offers to carry Clark's bags, then offers a ride. As soon as Clark steps out of the car, Victor drives off with Clark's luggage still in the trunk.
Clark tells his instructor at NYU Professor Fleeber (Paul Benedict), who uses books he has written as required study, about losing his belongings. Clark notices Victor walking by and gives chase. Victor vows to give his luggage back in return for a favor. In Little Italy, Manhattan, Clark is introduced to Victor's uncle Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando) as Victor explains that Vito Corleone was based on Carmine.
Carmine offers Clark the opportunity to make a lot of money just for running small errands. The first is to pick up a Komodo dragon from JFK Airport and transport it to a specific address. Clark enlists the help of his roommate Steve Bushak (Frank Whaley) to pick up the animal and deliver it to Larry London (Maximilian Schell) and his assistant Edward (BD Wong).
Clark is also introduced to Carmine's daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller) who takes an immediate shine to him. Tina talks as if the two are soon to be married. A distracted Clark tries to pay attention in Fleeber's film class (where the professor shows clips of The Godfather Part II), but he is soon being chased by agents Chuck Greenwald (Jon Polito) and Lloyd Simpson (Richard Gant) of the Department of Justice.
Upon being caught, Clark is told that Carmine—also known as "Jimmy The Toucan"—not only is a Mafia figure but runs the Fabulous Gourmet Club. It is an illicit and nomadic establishment, never holding its festivities in the same place twice, where for enormous prices endangered animals are served as the main course, specially prepared by Larry London. Clark is told that "for the privilege of eating the very last of a species", a million dollars is charged.
Clark finds out that his activist stepfather listened in on a conversation with his mother. Right after Clark mentioned the Komodo dragon, Dwight contacted the Department of Justice. Carmine admits that the Gourmet Club exists, but tells Clark that Greenwald and Simpson are being bribed by a rival crime family that wants both Carmine and Clark dead. While driving to the Gourmet Club, a plan is hatched to get Carmine out of the exotic animal business for good and to clear Clark.
At the Gourmet Club's dinner, longtime Miss America pageant host Bert Parks sings a version of "There She Is" when the Komodo dragon is revealed. Clark steps outside to signal Greenwald and Simpson, who raid the club. Carmine is upset that Clark has ratted him out. Carmine pulls a gun, the two wrestle, and Carmine is apparently shot dead.
Revealing their corruption, Greenwald and Simpson leave with a duffel bag filled with money, though they are soon caught by real FBI agents and arrested. Clark berates his stepfather, who leaves. Carmine then gets up off the floor, having faked his death. Larry London reveals tonight's expensive and exotic dinner is actually Hawaiian tigerfish mixed with smoked turkey from Virginia, not endangered species (a long-running con of Carmine's, swindling the rich out of their money). The endangered animals will be in fact housed in the new Carmine Sabatini Endangered Species Wing at the Bronx Zoo. Clark was hand-picked by Carmine, who was in fact working with the FBI, because they knew Clark's stepfather would contact the corrupt agents once he found out about Clark's "job".
Tina's aggressive interest in Clark was an act as well, but she and Clark now share a mutual attraction. Carmine and Clark take the Komodo dragon for a walk, Carmine promising it will be taken safely to a new habitat at the zoo. He offers to help Clark make it in Hollywood, having a few connections there. Clark says "Thanks, but no thanks" as they continue walking.
- Marlon Brando as Carmine Sabatini, the proprietor of the Gourmet Club. A running gag is that some people notice that he looks like Vito Corleone from The Godfather even though nobody will say it to his face.
- Matthew Broderick as Clark Kellogg, a university student who befriends Carmine.
- Bruno Kirby as Victor Ray, Carmine's nephew.
- Penelope Ann Miller as Tina Sabatini, Carmine's daughter.
- Frank Whaley as Steve Bushak, Clark's roommate.
- Jon Polito as Chuck Greenwald, a corrupt Department of Justice operative who targets Carmine.
- Paul Benedict as Arthur Fleeber, a professor at New York University.
- Richard Gant as Lloyd Simpson, a corrupt Department of Justice operative and Greenwald's partner who targets Carmine.
- Kenneth Welsh as Dwight Armstrong, Clark's animal activist stepfather.
- Pamela Payton-Wright as Liz Armstrong, Clark's mother.
- BD Wong as Edward, one of Carmine's associates.
- Maximilian Schell as Larry London, one of Carmine's associates.
- Bert Parks as himself, he sings a song at the Gourmet Club.
David Was and Don Was make uncredited cameos as two band members of the Gourmet Club's party band.
Bergman says "the most fun I ever had" as a filmmaker "was once Marlon [Brando] committed to play the character Jimmy the Toucan... Rewriting that, knowing Marlon was going to be saying all those lines? It was absolutely heaven.... On one level you’re like, I’m going to direct this guy!? But at the end of the day you say, well, somebody’s got to direct him, so what the hell, it’s going to be me. And he was really a pleasure to work with. It’s not like you’re dealing with George Burns in terms of a comedy god. Getting Marlon to do things was sometimes like turning around an aircraft carrier because he had a way he wanted to do it. But you could get him there. He was terribly respectful and funny."
Bergman says Matthew Broderick "was very hot at the time. He was impossible to get—he was like the hottest thing going!" but he agreed to do the film because of Brando. "Once Marlon was in the picture, you could get any actor you want... Olivier wanted to be in the movie [instead of Max Schell] but he was too sick.”
Though referred to in the movie as a "Komodo Dragon", the lizards supplied for filming were actually Asian water monitors, a slightly smaller relative. A tame specimen was used for scenes requiring the actors to interact with it, while the chase sequences used flightier lizards.
The film was well received, with Janet Maslin describing it in The New York Times as "witty and enchanted". In his review, Roger Ebert wrote, "There have been a lot of movies where stars have repeated the triumphs of their parts—but has any star ever done it more triumphantly than Marlon Brando does in The Freshman?"
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 93% "Certified Fresh" with "Average Rating" of 7.5/10 based on 46 reviews.