Friday, June 11, 2010

Free Enterprise - a toupological analysis.

Free Enterprise is a 1998 low-budget comedy starring Rafer Weigel, Eric McCormack and William Shatner. The movie had a limited theatrical run before finding a cult following after its release on DVD. In 2006, an extended edition DVD was released of the movie into which about eight minutes of extra footage was added - and that is the version that we will review here.

Weigel and McCormack play Robert and Mark (characters directly based on the movie's co-writer and director Robert Meyer Burnett and co-writer and Mark A. Altman), two near-thirty-somethings who, as Wikipedia puts it: "struggle with adult career and relationship problems, all the while defiantly clinging to the geeky science fiction pop culture of their youth and seeking advice from their greatest hero, William Shatner."

Bill Shatner plays an exaggerated version of himself in the tradition of Jerry Lewis in 1983's The King of Comedy or Larry David in the TV series Curb Your Enthusiasm.

In flashbacks, we see both nerdy kids getting into all kinds of trouble because of their love of Star Trek.

They are guided by visions of the one and only William Shatner.

Years later, Rob is a struggling editor who earns a living cutting porn films, while Mark is a somewhat better off and more stable prospective script-writer.

One day, they bump into William Shatner inside a bookstore...

Bill Shatner then reveals his plans to make a musical version of Julius Caesar:

Later on, Rob, after a series of tawdry relationships, bumps into a girl reading a comic book - it's love at first sight.

But aspects of his nerdiness threaten to break them apart.

Mark's relationships don't fare much better.

Bill Shatner, battling writer's block and a recent breakup, also has problems with women.

In the end, Shatner finally gets to perform his musical Julius Caesar at a surprise birthday party for Mark.

An article about Free Enterprise in DVD Verdict notes: "[Shatner] insisted on being portrayed as an imperfect man and to make fun of his public persona...the original plot made Shatner out to be some sort of demigod, but he passed on it a few times because he thought it was unrealistic. Eventually he agreed, if the script were changed to make him more realistic and flawed. So the writers rewrote the script to better fit his vision, and the results are almost certainly far better in every way."

Thus, the filmmakers were only able to secure Bill Shatner's involvement in the movie after considerable persistence and many failed attempts. All of this is laudable and we certainly agree that Bill Shatner's insistence on making fun of himself in his performance was the right choice - but what of the movie itself? Franky, we found it a mixed bag. There are some well-scripted and funny moments, such as this Shatner impersonation of a classic scene from Star Trek (compare to the original here).

The two main actors' performances are strong and Bill Shatner hits the right tone with his portrayal - self-deprecating, but three-dimensional; a caricature, but a believable and very human one. But, sadly, Bill Shatner's screen-time is rather limited, and one can't help but wish there was more of him in the movie - indeed, a Curb Your Enthusiasm-type starring role might have yielded a far better film. The romantic and professional exploits of the two leads just aren't anywhere near as compelling or interesting as the de facto sub-plot around Bill Shatner and his musical Julius Caesar.

Free Enterprise is most definitely a low-budget movie - unfortunately, this often shows from both a technical and creative standpoint. The camerawork is frequently flawed, with out-of-focus, under-lit or shaky shots inexplicably surviving into the final cut.

The direction, by almost-first-time director and co-writer Robert Meyer Burnett is probably the most disappointing aspect of the film. The shot compositions and the way they inter-relate to each other in numerous scenes are frequently either uninspired, awkward or woefully disjointed and mismatched (we're not being finicky, it really is quite noticeable). The 180 degree rule is broken a few times, while many scenes are filmed in identical ways: two closeups and a mid-shot, or a static camera on one person and a roving camera on the other. Some of the camera angles just feel odd and wrong, hanging in a strange "suspension of disbelief" blind-spot, just off the actors' eye-lines. The editing (sometimes matching shots that don't want to match) is noticeably jarring at times and, frankly, quite unforgivably appalling - an apparent consequence of the writer-director-editor being a little too close to the material.

Some of this amateurishness dissipates as the film progresses, with some scenes staged and filmed far more dynamically. Perhaps it was a sharp learning curve or a quick change of course after viewing early rushes. Nonetheless, this sloppiness hurts the film and undermines what might have been a true classic.

A sequel is reportedly in the works; if a better director was brought on board, perhaps Mike Judge of Office Space or Kevin Smith of Clerks, coupled with a tighter script, better budget and more Shatner, then there is arguably great potential for something truly special.

Let's move swiftly to the hair...

This film comes at the very end of Bill Shatner's "TJ Curly" hair era (1976-2000) and it's evident from Free Enterprise why this toup was soon going to be retired: as Bill Shatner grew older, its relative thickness made it seem less and less believable, particularly at the frontal hairline.

Nonetheless, the toup had some strengths too in that it was far more stable and less prone to toupological "moments". Indeed, only one incident was cataloged by our toupologists - an area of patchiness in the mid-scalp during one scene.

Free Enterprise is available on DVD, both in its original form, and in the recent extended cut. A fun and entertaining film, with understandable cult appeal - but also one that is hurt by some amateurish flaws.


  1. That shot of the top of Shatner's head is a great finding - good work!

  2. Old, chubby Shatner + TJ Curly = No good

  3. The real black hole!

  4. I think that at that time, people were accepting Bill's toupee for granted. But then came the plugs and more controversy settled in.

  5. They should've let Shat do the film directing chores. He did episodes of TJ Hooker and Star Trek 5, not to mention Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.

  6. Yeah, but he also wrote and directed "Groom Lake", which is bad and beyond.

    Good move, Bill, on insisting on making fun of yourself!

  7. Wow.

    To quote Ed Wood, "My next one will be better..."

  8. More fantastic research and analysis, team - excellent. I'm new to this site but very impressed; it's fantastic!

    I'm posting this here as it's the chronologically nearest to my request - do you have any analysis of "Dead Man's Island" - the mid-nineties TV movie with Barbara Eden? If memory serves, the shat's toup/one piece bathing suit combo is a sight to behold!

  9. Thanks touplover2 and welcome! On the right hand column is a "full toupological analyses" list of the shows/movies we've looked at so far. "Dead Man's Island" is one we haven't gotten to yet, but surely will - that scene you mention is up on YouTube, we think. -ST

  10. An "area of patchiness". LOL I spewed all over my keyboard. Brillant writing without being mean.