It is written and directed by Andrew Bergman. The plot revolves around a young New York film student's entanglement into 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. Clark is introduced to Victor's uncle, Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando). In a running gag, Clark mentions how much Carmine looks, sounds and acts like The Godfather—though no one will tell Carmine this to his face. Victor explains that Brando's character in The Godfather, 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 two agents of the Department of Justice.
Upon being caught, Clark is told that Carmine—also known as "Jimmy The Toucan"—is not only a Mafia figure, he 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 the two DOJ agents 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 the DOJ agents, who raid the club. Carmine is upset that Clark has ratted him out. Carmine pulls a gun, the two wrestle and a shot fells Carmine.
The two DOJ agents, who do indeed turn out to be corrupt, 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). Clark was hand-picked by Carmine, 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."Marlon Brando as Carmine Sabatini
Matthew Broderick as Clark Kellogg
Bruno Kirby as Victor Ray
Penelope Ann Miller as Tina Sabatini
Frank Whaley as Steve Bushak
Jon Polito as Chuck Greenwald
Paul Benedict as Arthur Fleeber
Richard Gant as Lloyd Simpson
Kenneth Welsh as Dwight Armstrong
Pamela Payton-Wright as Liz Armstrong
BD Wong as Edward
Maximilian Schell as Larry London
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.”
The film was well received, with Janet Maslin describing it in The New York Times as "witty and enchanted". In his original 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?" Variety also praised Brando's performance as Sabatini and noted, "Marlon Brando's sublime comedy performance elevates The Freshman from screwball comedy to a quirky niche in film history." On the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, The Freshman has a 93% "Certified Fresh" with "Average Rating" of 7.5/10 based on 43 reviews. The consensus is "Buoyed by the charm of Matthew Broderick in the title role and Marlon Brando as a caricature of his Godfather persona, The Freshman benefits from solid casting, a clever premise, and sweet humor."
American Film Institute recognition:AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs - Nominated