Robin’s Underrated Gems: Free Enterprise (1999)

“How can you know the name of every episode of that fucking television show, but you can’t manage to pay a $16 gas bill?”

If you’re frequenting this blog, I’d say chances are good that you’re familiar with the world of pop culture geekdom and have heard someone say something similar to the preceding line of dialogue to you. Few films have ever conveyed the challenge of trying to balance your geeky hobbies with your personal life better than Free Enterprise. As you probably guessed from the title, the biggest love of the characters in this film is Star Trek, but these are not Trekkies who wear Starfleet uniforms and speak to each other in Klingon. They’re just normal, likable people who love to talk endlessly about their favourite films, TV shows and comic books, and are constantly quoting famous lines of dialogue in their everyday conversations. Free Enterprise has built up a small cult following on home video during the last decade, but it barely made a peep during its theatrical release in 1999. However, after viewing the original trailer that ends with William Shatner rapping passages from Shakespeare, it’s not hard to understand why this wouldn’t appeal to everyone. When I originally saw this trailer in theatres, one guy in the audience actually yelled out: “What the hell was that?!”.

The director of this film is Robert Meyer Burnett, who co-wrote it with his lifelong friend, Mark Altman. This is Burnett’s only feature film directorial credit as he directs behind-the-scenes featurettes for Hollywood blockbusters these days, and Altman has mostly been writing scripts for low-rent horror films (including House of the Dead, but I’ll try not to hold that against him). Free Enterprise is loosely based on incidents from their personal lives and the two main characters are even named Robert (Rafer Weigel) and Mark (Eric McCormack, right before he hit it big on Will & Grace). Robert is always broke and spending what little money he has on his geeky hobbies instead of paying the bills. He works as an editor for a low-rent film studio, but is on the verge of losing his job, and his girlfriend has just left him because of his irresponsibility. Mark is more responsible and is quite successful, but also has trouble with holding a relationship and is terrified about the prospect of turning 30 (exemplified during an hilarious parody of Logan’s Run where Mark has a nightmare about being exterminated). Of course, the two of them are hardcore Star Trek fans and have a life-changing experience when they run into their hero, William Shatner, in a book store. However, he isn’t quite what they expected him to be.

To their disappointment, Shatner comes across as something of a lunatic and all he wants to talk about is his idea of doing a musical version of the entire text of Julius Caesar. William Shatner gives one of the all-time great self-deprecating performances in this film. Apparently, it took a lot of convincing for the filmmakers to get him to agree to appear in this, but surprisingly, it was due to the fact that the original screenplay practically made him out to be a God. Shatner was embarrassed by the idea of being portrayed this way, and actually asked them to re-write him as a more normal, imperfect human being. Robert and Mark are initially disappointed to find out that their hero is not a God, but has the same flaws and insecurities as everyone else and is even capable of getting nervous and making an ass out of himself when trying to ask out a woman (Deborah van Valkenburgh of The Warriors fame). Meanwhile, Robert recovers from his break-up and finally meets the girl of his dreams. This scene is the ultimate nerd fantasy as Robert winds up meeting Claire (Audie England), an attractive single girl who’s shopping in a comic-book store and turns out to be just as geeky and passionate about his pop culture interests as he is.

There really isn’t a lot of plot to be found in Free Enterprise. Its biggest story arcs basically involve Robert’s up-and-down relationship with Claire, Mark’s insecurities about turning 30, and their interactions with William Shatner. However, the dialogue scenes in this film are so delightful that there really doesn’t need to be a lot of plot. This is a movie that needs to be watched multiple times just to catch all the pop culture references. The characters are constantly slipping lines of dialogue from famous movies into their conversations and it’s safe to say that over 50 % of Star Wars is quoted here. I’d wager that the British TV series, Spaced, was heavily influenced by this film, so if you’ve ever watched that show, you know what to expect here. There are so many great little moments that have nothing to do with the plot, but add so much to the film, such as when an important dialogue scene is interrupted when one of Robert’s ex-girlfriends randomly phones him while in the midst of doing a crossword puzzle.

Ex-Girlfriend: Listen, I need a five-letter Star Wars planet.

Robert: Five-letter Star Wars planet? Endor.

Ex-Girlfriend: Thanks, Robert. I knew you were good for something. *Click*

Since this movie was made when DVD was still in its infancy, the most hilariously dated element is how the characters are constantly talking about their laserdisc collections! But that only adds to the movie’s charm. Free Enterprise is pretty much the ultimate cult film since it’s safe to say that some audiences might find this to be the one of the most rambling, pointless movies ever made. However, the film’s target audience is definitely going to identify with the characters they see on-screen and are going to find this a delightful viewing experience. If you’ve ever been turned off by a woman who says she prefers to watch the pan-and-scan version of a film, then Free Enterprise is definitely a movie for you. Oh, and you can’t possibly hate a movie that climaxes with William Shatner doing a hip-hop version of Julius Caesar.

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