As with my previous recap of Chasing Amy here on Sequart, it’s time to take a trip back in time, to that dear departed 20th century. Released exactly 15 years ago this week, Free Enterprise is another of those late 1990s films that anticipates and creates our modern geek culture. Like all influential films, it is both of its time and ahead of its time, but it also features one of William Shatner’s funniest performances and a rap version of Shakespeare. That’s a rare combination in any decade.
Free Enterprise tells the story of two friends Mark (Eric McCormack) and Robert (Rafer Weigel) who are both struggling with their careers in the film industry and with romantic relationships. The film was created by professional partners and friends Robert Meyer Burnett and Mark A. Altman. (When auditioning for the roles, McCormack famously asked, “You didn’t even change your names?!” It was a very personal story for both of them.)
Mark, a more fastidious type-A personality, begins the movie by giving us a long pitch for a movie idea about a serial killer who only hunts women named after characters on The Brady Bunch. His title? “Bradykiller”. McCormack, in a pre-Will and Grace but post-Shakespeare role, brings just the right amount of casual snark and Shatnerism to the part of Eric, striking just the right tone. Weigel’s character Robert is much more of a slacker, but also more of a ladies man and “true believing” nerd who literally allows his electricity to be cut off so he can save enough money to buy a rare action figure. The two have many scenes over drinks, or nachos, where they diagnose and parse their issues with women and career, as well as trading Star Trek and Star Wars references with urgent regularity.
Mark and Robert both have relationship issues but it’s Robert’s intense love affair with Claire, a beautiful girl he meets in a comic shop, that forms the narrative engine of the story. Claire, impressed with Robert’s description of his home theatre (this was back when laserdiscs still ruled the market, and it was very rare indeed to have a true Dolby 5.1 setup), initially loves being with Robert. They are deliriously well-matched in terms of their interest in fun and geek culture, dressing in the original series Trek uniforms and arguing over Sandman. But gradually, Claire realizes that Robert isn’t being serious enough about his career (the film revolves around him turning the ripe old age of 30). While Mark is a writer, Robert is primarily an editor, working on low-budget sci-fi porn parodies. But he can’t bring himself to expend even the minimal effort necessary to complete his tasks, and things come to a head, eventually working themselves out at a 30th birthday party involving green dancing girls.
That plot description would have made a satisfactory film. The banter between Mark, Robert and their friends is so geeky in such a modern way that it might have viewers today checking the film’s release date. One of my favourite moments is when our heroes and two other friends are driving to Toys ‘r Us to buy Star Wars action figures and one starts singing, “Steppin’ into Eden….”, whereupon everyone else in the car joins in, “Yaaaaaay, brother!” In that pre-DVD era, to have that much specific pop culture knowledge was much less common than it is today. When those characters started singing that song, and I found myself singing right along with them, I knew that there were others in the world just as crazy about this stuff as I, and someday we would get together. Today, when even the President knows how to do the Vulcan salute (and gives it regularly), we live in a significantly different popular culture landscape.
The film’s trump card, and possibly why it was financed and released, is the inclusion of William Shatner. Once again, we must orient ourselves in 1998: Shatner was seven years removed from the last original-cast Star Trek film and had four years on from his last appearance as Kirk. He had not made a major film appearance since, and was clearly struggling, as he approached 70, with his place in the cultural landscape. Free Enterprise, amongst other things, marks the moment at which William Shatner discovered his future, and his way forward into 21 century popular culture. If someone had suggested at the time that some of Shatner’s best acting moments, and some of his most knowing and hilarious attempts at comedy, were ahead of him in 1999, few would have believed it. But Free Enterprise, and the geek culture it anticipates, set him on the path.
Shatner plays “Bill”, an exaggerated and hapless version of himself. Mark and Robert run into him late at night, perusing porn magazines at a book store. They “geek out” but eventually mention that they work in the entertainment business. Shatner’s eyes light up as he invites the boys for drinks (which are green, of course) and pitches them what he believes to be his masterpiece: a musical version of Julius Caesar, with himself in all the roles. (“Except Calpurnia,” he quickly adds, “I can get Heather Locklear for that.”) Shatner reconnects with Mark and Robert periodically throughout the film, asking if there is any interest in his project and functioning as a sort of cockeyed romantic advisor. In one sequence, Robert and Shatner go drinking, and Shatner tries to pick up the bar owner (she turns him down) and plays pool with the rap group “Rated R”, who insist on calling him “Hooker”. Shatner essentially just “hangs out” for the whole movie and doesn’t contribute a great deal of useful advice or plot energy, but seeing this symbol of masculine authority reduced to a stumbling, stammering buffoon with terrible artistic ideas is a funny conceit, and Shatner commits to the role.
At the big birthday party at the film’s end, Shatner finishes things up with a song, a rap version of Mark Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar done in collaboration with Rated R called “No Tears for Caesar.” Interestingly, the song is actually a real-life collaboration between Shatner and the group, and Shatner once again dives in head first into the world of hip-hop, sporting a big gold chain and dancing with the group with utter conviction. He’s a great sport, and possibly a little touch of the clueless old hack that he’s playing, but that just makes him more fun.
Free Enterprise was a failure at the box office (it took in just $30,000 during its theatrical run, which doesn’t even pay for the posters), but as it was always destined to do, it quickly found a life on home video. I saw it on video in around 2000 and was unique at the time in its layers of meta-comedy and Shatner’s self-parodying. Other than the films of Kevin Smith, and shows like The Simpsons, there was no explicit nerd culture in the popular media, although it was certainly firmly in place off-screen, as demonstrated by the biggest geek story of the year, The Phantom Menace. Even Family Guy, with all its pop culture references, was just starting its first season. The landscape changed so quickly and so completely, to the point where now we are fairly drowning in popular culture and Facebook memes have made geeks of us all, that it’s difficult to say how much Free Enterprise had to do with that. It seems to me that the film was ahead of its time, and if it had been made just five years later, it probably would have been a gigantic hit (and would have been much easier to get greenlit).
That’s the impression you get from seeing Free Enterprise today, on its 15th anniversary: it’s quaint and slightly old-fashioned but simultaneously very current.