1998’s Free Enterprise: “Don’t you understand? This is MY movie…”

The year I got married (the same year the moon was supposed to be blown out of Earth’s orbit in “Space: 1999”), I discovered a film that captured both my own bachelor years in the mid-1990s as well as my own experiences as a lifelong aficionado of all things geek.  As I was thumbing through an issue of Widescreen Review magazine, I came across an article about an indie comedy written/directed by Mark Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett called “Free Enterprise.”  

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Writer Mark Altman (CFQ, Sci-Fi Universe magazines, “The Fifty Year Mission” books 1,2, and the recent release,”So Say We All”)
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Director/cowriter Robert Meyer Burnett (“Free Enterprise”, documentarian/producer, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” blu ray box sets), and Mark Altman’s frequent writing partner Ed Gross (“The Fifty Year Mission” parts 1, 2, “So Say We All”).

Altman and Burnett are the real-life “Mark and Robert” whose lives are both loosely and very specifically chronicled in the film. I was familiar with both of their names from articles they’d written for two ‘bibles’ of mine from that time; the magazines Cinefantastique and Sci-Fi Universe.  

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Altman is also the co-author of some favorite recent non-fiction books of mine, including the two “Fifty Year Mission” Star Trek production books, as well as the Battlestar Galactica chronicle called “So Say We All”; all three are cowritten with Altman’s longtime writing partner Ed Gross.

According to the article in Widescreen Review the movie was only playing in limited release on the film festival circuit, so I never got a chance to see it theatrically, but I remember rushing to our local Virgin Megastore (may they rest in peace) to grab a copy of the DVD.   I brought the movie home and my wife and I played it that very night, and we both utterly loved it.

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Mark (Eric McCormack) and Robert (Rafer Wiegel) perusing the Iliad Bookstore…

In the film we’re introduced to ‘Mark’ (future “Will & Grace” star Eric McCormack) and ‘Robert’ (Rafer Wiegel), who are both approaching the age of 30 from different perspectives.  Mark is a responsible, somewhat anal-retentive workaholic writer who is best friends with the carefree editor/filmmaker Robert, who lives in reckless pursuit of dreams but with few practical ideas on how to achieve them.  The duo are a classic Felix and Oscar pairing (that sound you hear is the sound of me missing the recently departed Neil Simon).

Their experiences in the film were curiously similar to mine in those days…days off spent perusing bookstores, looking for the latest offbeat laserdisc releases, or grabbing Mexican takeout and watching a “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” marathon in my stiflingly warm little bachelor apartment with fellow geeky friends of mine.   Ah, good times…

“Free Enterprise” was a genuine rarity at the time; it was a then-untold story of (more or less) functional adults who love comic books, science-fiction movies and TV shows.  It broke new ground in geek-chic.  The film depicted aging fanboys of my generation who were both surrounding themselves in fantasy yet working through real-life adulting issues, such as dating (yes, we geeks actually go on dates), paying electric bills, struggling with work and meeting one’s idols, which can be a mixed blessing sometimes.

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“The Big Bang Theory” (2007-present); arguably the ‘safer,’ more sanitized progeny of “Free Enterprise”…

Bear in mind, the movie was released nearly a decade before “Big Bang Theory” (2007-present) made geek-chic both cool and popular (something I could’ve never imagined as a nerdy, fat kid in middle school in the early 1980s).  Even in 1999 it was still just a little bit dangerous to openly admit to your coworkers that you waited in line nearly half a day to see the latest Star Wars movie, or that your previous weekend was spent having a pizza-fueled marathon of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” VHS tapes with your friends.

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When Robert met Claire…

The characters’ lives are changed forever when Rob meets fellow comic book devotee Claire (Audie England, playing a character whom I swear is loosely based upon my own comic book-collecting wife) and when they meet their idol William Shatner during a chance encounter at an L.A. bookstore.

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“It’s Bill Shatner, and he’s perusing porn…ALRIGHT!”

Robert’s relationship with Claire eventually gives him the incentive to put his dreams into focus, while Shatner plays a somewhat daffy, absent-minded, bumbling version of himself, several years before “Boston Legal” and his Priceline ads reinvented his image by doing exactly the same thing.  “Free Enterprise” did the comedic, self-depricating William Shatner-thing first.

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“Run, Runner!” Robert, as 23rd century ‘sandman’ Logan-5, terrorizes ‘Runner’ Mark in a pitch-perfect dream-sequence parody of 1976’s “Logan’s Run”

There is also a flood of sci-fi, cinematic and TV references that fly by so fast and furiously that the first edition of the film on DVD literally came with an interactive glossary for those poor ‘Herberts’ who don’t reach (see: “Star Trek TOS: Way to Eden”).  Sad thing is, whenever I see the film, I don’t need a glossary.  I never did, in fact.  I got all of the references… from “The Godfather” (“Can’t do it, Sallie”) to “The Lathe of Heaven” (the effective dreaming of George Orr).

As the ‘young Mark’ (Ethan Glazer), seen in the film’s opening, says to the ticket saleslady when going to see the opening of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”: “Don’t you understand??  This is MY movie!”  

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Shatner parties with Robert and Mark.

The characters are admitted exaggerations of their real-life counterparts, but only slight exaggerations.  Having met both Mark Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett at various conventions over the years, I can say that they really poured their souls into the film.  To call it a passion project is a bit of an understatement.  “Free Enterprise” is an unabashed celebration of all geekdom, and done with far more depth and maturity than “Big Bang Theory” which tends to make fun of, rather than truly empathize with its characters.

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Robert and Mark meet their idol, William Shatner

Having also met many of my own idols at conventions (Leonard Nimoy being one who left me genuinely starstruck), I can also relate to the duo’s interactions with Shatner, who is presented in wonderfully unflattering ways which brings their ‘hero’ very much down to Earth.  It also gave Shatner a whole new Leslie Neilsen-esque career in self-deprecating comedy.

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My own ‘Free Enterprise’ moment (of many), when my dry-mouthed self met the late Leonard Nimoy at 2009’s San Diego Comic Con.  He and Ray Bradbury were two human ‘Mt. Everests’ that my younger self never imagined I’d meet in person…

Rather than depicting their idol William Shatner as some godlike paragon of wisdom, the Shatner of “Free Enterprise” is far more Peter O’Toole in “My Favorite Year” (1982); a film I saw in high school theater class which allowed me to instantly recognize what Altman and Burnett were doing…and it very much works.  The Shatner of “Free Enterprise” isn’t the heroic Captain Kirk who nearly died defeating the Doomsday Machine; he’s a flawed, aging actor who can’t seem to successfully sustain a relationship (a problem that bedevils both Robert and Mark as well).

The fans and their idol eventually form something of a symbiotic relationship, each helping the other reify their dreams; which in Shatner’s case involve a rap musical of “Julius Caesar,” which must be seen & heard to be truly believed.  It is every bit the slow-motion train wreck you’d expect.  It’s also oddly compelling as well.

The chorus “Don’t Cry Caesar” may very well ring in your ears for a few days afterward…

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“No tears!” William Shatner…in Wiliam Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

If there are any issues with the film is that it’s perhaps too culturally specific to have the kind of blander, more generic appeal of “Big Bang Theory.”  Another could be its pacing (the special edition of the movie runs 121 minutes), which could be a turnoff for those expecting a typically breezy, superficial 90 minute rom-com.

It’s also a bit more adult (nudity, language), as the Special Edition cut of the film is unrated.

These are fairly minor issues as far as I’m concerned, largely because I am the movie’s exact target demographic.  “Free Enterprise” may not be for every audience, but for those who ‘get it’, the movie is utter, unfiltered nerd-vana.   Well worth a pizza night with a few like-minded friends over for a watch.

Love long and party, indeed…

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