Director Robert Meyer Burnett and his co-writer Mark A. Altman breathe new life into the Hollywood-set romantic comedy genre with their funny, sharp and engaging "Free Enterprise," their debut feature; Regent Entertainment has selected it as its second film following its smash debut with "Gods and Monsters."
We at first think we've met their heroes before in many other movies, but they quickly prove to be idiosyncratic. Rafer Weigel's Robert and Eric McCormack's Mark, two super-bright, fiercely articulate industry wannabes, are about to hit 30. They are confronted with the inescapable fact that they're not where they had hoped to be in life.
While Robert is doing well enough financially as a writer of schlock horror pictures, he has cut himself off emotionally, interested only in shallow bimbo types. A film editor, Mark is a spendthrift romantic, always getting hurt. They both need badly to grow up, as many young American males do.
Mark spends most of what he makes on "Star Trek" collectibles and other movie-related memorabilia, videos and laser discs. Friends since childhood, Robert and Mark are serious Trekkers and cineastes extraordinaire. They can't conduct a conversation that's not loaded with movie references. Mark is beginning to wish that he could meet a woman who shares his passions instead of being told that being a Trekker is a "guy thing."
(You don't have to be a Trekker to enjoy this picture, but it couldn't hurt, just as familiarity with a slew of other pictures the guys revere, such as "Logan's Run," helps.)
Just as Mark meets Claire (Audie England), who could just be Ms. Right, he and Robert encounter their idol William Shatner at NoHo's Iliad Bookstore. They strike up an acquaintance with the actor, who tells him that he too is getting over a broken romance and like them wants to get his own project off the ground: a self-admitted "height of hubris" dream of turning "Julius Caesar" into a musical in which he would play all the roles except Calpurnia. (Shatner's thinking Sharon Stone, Heather Locklear or Julia Roberts for that part.)
Romance overtakes Mark and Claire, who is grounded enough to question the wisdom of Mark investing in a special edition laser disc of George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" when he's unable to pay for the electricity he obviously will need to enjoy it. But "Free Enterprise" will ultimately emerge as a celebration of risk-taking in the spirit of the heroism of Captain Kirk.
"Free Enterprise" is in fact a most affectionate homage to Shatner, who plays himself, though not his actual self. ("Free Enterprise" was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and Shatner showed up for some amusing promotional events.) The film respects Shatner's dignity and his status as an icon of popular culture but without stiff reverence or demeaning spoofery.
Burnett and Altman allow Shatner to suggest that he and Captain Kirk are not in fact one and the same, and that he's a man who may have more in common with Robert and Mark than they realize. In one of his most telling moments, he points out to Robert and Mark that they've programmed their lives to a 30-year-old TV show, adding gently that they might well consider adding "a little reality to their imaginations."
Burnett is a fine director of actors, and "Free Enterprise" is polished in all aspects. Weigel and McCormack (of TV's "Will and Grace") both make a strong impression, as does the supporting cast, which includes elegant Deborah Van Valkenberg, who understandably catches Shatner's eye.
Where "Free Enterprise" really scores is in its dialogue; Burnett and Altman's throwaway lines alone would brighten up 20 other modestly budgeted movies aimed at 30-something audiences.
* MPAA rating: R for sexuality and language. Times guidelines: some adult situations and sex talk, but nothing really offensive.
Rafer Weigel: Robert
Eric McCormack: Mark
William Shatner: Bill
Audie England: Claire
A Regent Enterprise presentation of a Mindfire Entertainment production in association with Triad Studios. Director-editor Robert Meyer Burnett. Producers Dan Bates, Mark Altman & Allan Kaufman. Executive producers Mark and Ellie Gottwald. Screenplay Mark A. Altman & Robert Meyer Bennett. Cinematographer Charles L. Barbee. Music Scott Spock. Costumes Ann Lambert. Production designer Cynthia Halligan. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
At selected theaters.