Free Enterprise (1998) takes William Shatner’s famous Saturday Night Live sketch where he tells a group of Star Trek fans to get a life and runs with it, expanding this idea into a feature-length film while also directing those sentiments back at himself. It’s a film that cleverly blends the sensibilities of My Favorite Year (1982), Clerks (1994) and Swingers (1996) while managing to simultaneously celebrate and poke fun at the man and the legend that is Shatner. While you don’t have to be a Trekkie to watch this film, it certainly helps if you’ve seen a few episodes of the original Trek and maybe one of the films. What High Fidelity (2000) did for music fans Free Enterprise does for film buffs, specifically Star Trek fans. It was made by film geeks for film geeks.
The film takes us back to the heady days when laserdiscs were about to make way for DVDs, so the first thing that strikes you is all the references to that out-of-date media. If you thought Kevin Smith dropped a ton of popular culture references in his films then you ain’t seen nothing yet. Free Enterprise’s prologue alone refers to films like Touch of Evil (1958), Manhunter (1986), The Player (1992), and Seven (1995), as a young man named Mark (Eric McCormack) pitches a high-concept project about “the death of ‘70s suburban bliss which gives way to the angst of ‘90s dystopian fatalism” – a serial killer who only stalks women named after the three girls in The Brady Bunch. Mark enthusiastically acts out the film’s ambitious first shot for the first scene. Amazingly, Eric McCormack pulls this all off with a straight face during this hilariously absurd movie pitch.
We meet the film’s two protagonists as kids during pivotal moments in their lives. It is at these moments that they are visited by a vision of William Shatner (“I’m one of the top ten imaginary friends kids have – just behind John Travolta, Reggie Jackson and Farrah Fawcett-Majors,” he tells one of them). He is surprisingly funny and self-deprecating during this scene and this flashback establishes what an important figure the veteran actor is in these guys’ lives.
In the present, Robert (Rafer Weigel) is being dumped by his girlfriend. He has no problem buying some cool action figure from 1974 worth lots of money but forgets to pay an insignificant utility bill. So, he seeks consolation and counsel from his best friend Mark, the editor of Geek Monthly magazine. They banter back and forth, trading quips and references to all kinds of films and television shows. They drown their sorrows at a fast food restaurant where Robert, a film editor, tells his friend that his latest gig is editing some schlock called Beach Babe Bimbo Fiesta, to which Mark replies, “Okay, it’s not Grand Illusion, at least you’re working in your profession of choice, not slinging hash at Norm’s.”
Later that night, while browsing through a local used book store, Mark and Robert spot Shatner in an aisle checking out a porn magazine. Naturally, being the fanboys that they are, they approach him. Mark and Robert get to talking with him and Shatner tells them that he’s suffering from writer’s block on a project he’s been working on – a musical version of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He plans to do the complete text with three intermissions and he’ll play all the parts, “except for Calpurnia. I want Sharon Stone for that.” It’s admittedly a crazy idea but there’s no denying Shatner’s passion for this project.
Robert meets his match at a local comic book store when a beautiful woman snags a Sandman graphic novel he was planning to buy. Impressed by the titles she collects and her beauty, of course, he manages to get her phone number (the film’s glaring flaw – she writes it on the cover of comic book worth $60 and instead of copying down her information on his hand, he pays for the issue!). Robert starts dating Claire (Audie England) and they hit it off but his irresponsible habits kick in and the money thing rears its ugly head yet again. With Shatner’s help, the boys attempt to improve their personal lives and do the same for him.
William Shatner is quite good playing a variation of himself or, at least, what Trek fans imagine him to be like. He actually comes off as fallible and not afraid to portray himself as a little crazy, unable to hold his liquor and unlucky with women, like when he drunkenly tries to pick up the owner of a bar (played by Deborah Van Valkenburgh no less!) in what can only be described as an awkward moment. While giving Mark and Robert advice on their love lives, his own is a mess. When he admits to being dumped by a woman he was in a long relationship with, Shatner actually shows remorse and disbelief that someone would leave him. He isn’t in Free Enterprise a whole lot but he makes the most of the screen time he does have. He also gives out sage advice, like when Robert tries to put him up on a pedestal and Shatner tells him, “People are people, Rob. Everybody expects actors to be like the characters they play, not like who they really are.” Shatner’s big moment comes at the film’s climactic scene – a musical number in which he performs a rap version of Marc Antony’s eulogy from Julius Caesar with rapper Rated R in a hip hop song entitled, “No Tears for Caesar.” It is a performance that has to be seen to be truly believed.
Robert Meyer Burnett met Mark A. Altman at the San Diego Comic Convention and they became fast friends. Burnett was working for Full Moon Pictures and Altman was the editor-in-chief of Sci Fi Universe magazine where he ended up making Burnett the Critic-at-Large. However, he soon became a freelance film editor. The genesis of Free Enterprise came out of a conversation Altman and Burnett had with a mutual friend, Kay Reindl, a T.V. writer on Millennium and The Twilight Zone, after a day of shopping for laserdiscs and action figures at Toys R Us. She suggested that they could make a film out of their clique’s obsession with Star Trek.
One day, Altman called Burnett and a read a scene he had written where he was beaten up in junior high school for wearing a Trek uniform. Then, William Shatner appeared to him as a vision and told him to fight back. Burnett gave his friend some ideas and two weeks later, Altman came back with a 250-page screenplay called Trekkers. From there, Burnett rewrote it, getting the script down to a more manageable 180 pages. They spent months going back and forth until they had a script that could actually be made into a film. They showed it to producer Dan Bates, who they had worked with previously on Day of Atonement, a supernatural thriller that was never filmed. He was instrumental in lining up investors interested in backing this project.
After Altman and Burnett secured financing for Free Enterprise, they approached Shatner’s manager. At this point, the script had the actor playing an imaginary character giving out advice to the two protagonists a la Play It Again, Sam (1972). They did not hear from him and even considered making a version of the film without Shatner. A few weeks later, he called them back and told them that he found their script funny but was uncomfortable playing a character that was “for all intents and purposes, God,” Burnett remembered. “I had played my (Kirk) persona as far as I wanted to go and probably as far as anybody wants me to go,” Shatner said. He told them that he might consider doing the film if they rewrote his role and made him “a real person with real problems.” At the time, Altman and Burnett had a set start date for filming and were depressed at being rebuffed by their idol. However, they had to ride the momentum and push onward. They rewrote Shatner’s part, tweaking his character to be more like Peter O’Toole’s in My Favorite Year and incorporating several anecdotes from Shatner’s actual life. They gave him a copy of the revised script which he still wasn’t comfortable with so they asked him for input and he finally agreed to do the film.
Free Enterprise was shot over 25 days in February 1998 on location in Los Angeles. Altman and Burnett shot on practical locations in order to cut costs and get the most of their small budget. Shooting on location also gave the film an authenticity. According to Altman, “I don’t think you can achieve the verisimilitude that we captured on stages and sets. The only way is to actually go to the real locations to capture the flavor, tastes and smells of Los Angeles.”
At times, Free Enterprise feels a little like Swingers as both films deal with single guys looking for love in Los Angeles while trying to also make it in the entertainment business. It doesn’t hurt that both film feature Patrick Van Horn as the brash friend of one of the protagonists. In Free Enterprise, he’s Robert’s wingman, interested only in keeping him single so he has someone to party with. If anything, this film feels more like a better shot, more focused Kevin Smith film complete with comic book collecting film geeks that have to grow up if they’re going to have any kind of meaningful relationship with a woman. However, unlike Smith’s films, Free Enterprise doesn’t rely on (admittedly hilarious) foul-mouthed, scatological humor and instead goes for clever, funny pop culture references, like when Mark and one of his friends talk about Robert’s obsession with Claire whom they compare to Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct (1992) and how their friend wouldn’t mind meeting his end much in the same way she dispenses with her victims: “Killed by a naked blond who doesn’t wear underwear to the strains of a Jerry Goldsmith score,” to which Mark adds, “Come to think of it, I’d sorta dig that myself.”
Free Enterprise was clearly a labor of love for Altman and Burnett and it shows. They have described it as being “semi-autobiographical” and “somewhat based on a true story, unfortunately.” It is a romantic comedy for genre fans and loaded with tons of film and T.V. references while also imparting a few poignant observations about relationships. In some respects, it is the best Kevin Smith film not made by Kevin Smith.
“Interview with Filmmaker: Robert Meyer Burnett.” Film Threat.
Snider, Mike. “These are the voyages…” USA Today.
“The Making of Free Enterprise.” San Diego Comic Convention Panel. August 14, 1998.