If they teach you anything in writing class, it’s “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.” With luck, it’s something an audience might actually care for. On that note, let’s take a look at friends and aspiring filmmakers, writer/director Robert Meyer Burnett and writer/producer Mark Altman. Burnett was a film editor for Full Moon Entertainment, among other production companies. Mark was the editor-in-chief for Sci-Fi Universe magazine (the old, bitter, funny one; not the crappy new one that’s the print equivalent of New Coke). What binds the two? “STAR TREK”. More than just a wall of action figures, Altman has co-written several books about “Star Trek” and Burnett edited all the presentation videos for “Star Trek: The Experience” in Las Vegas. Now picture the boys stuck in a rut. If they could make a film of their own, they could break free. But what could it possibly be about?
In “Free Enterprise”, we meet pals and aspiring filmmakers, Robert (Rafer Weigel) and Mark (Eric McCormack). Robert is tired of editing schlock at Full Eclipse Films, and Mark wants more than to edit “GEEK” magazine. Bonded by their love for old school “Star Trek” (…and “Logan’s Run”, and the taste of most pre-1980 sci-fi cheese), the pair bicker their way through life until they run into their hero, William Shatner. As children, he was the imaginary friend and mentor to both. The fact that they catch him reading porn at the time should be a good sign that he’s not quite ready to live up to their expectations. Did I mention this is a romantic comedy? It plays more like “Swingers” with professional sci-fi geeks, reinforced by the presence of Patrick Van Horn in the main circle of friends in both films. Robert meets Claire (Audie England), a smart, good-looking girl who actually likes sci-fi, comics, and action figures. (Yes, they do exist). With Claire, and their newfound friend, Bill, life for our heroes just gets plain weird. Hilarity ensues. You may be wondering, “How similar are the real and reel Robert and Mark?” As Shatner is probably not quite the deluded drunken womanizer he portrays in the film, our boys probably didn’t just make big screen clones of themselves. However, I wouldn’t doubt that many of the lines passed through a real conversation before reaching the actors’ lips, and movie Robert and movie Mark have all three dimensions and very clearly defined personality defects.
Be forewarned: If you thought “Pulp Fiction” and “Clerks” were loaded with pop culture references, you ain’t seen nuthin’, yet. The references (largely “Trek”) come early and often. Do you have to get them all to understand the movie? No. The characters are well defined to the point where you can easily understand the group’s dynamics. They often use the references as shorthand for what they really want to communicate, which is usually quite clear. More important, “Free Enterprise” is much better (and actually looks better) than any film Kevin Smith ever made, including “Clerks”. Still, it would help if you’ve seen “Logan’s Run” once in your life (not just for this film). The first real shortcoming would probably be an under-use of Shatner. Uncle Bill, about to be parodied by Tim Allen in “Galaxy Quest”, has never received the respect he deserves. Look at the old shows. That delightful cocktail of talent, ego, testosterone, and a touch of mania overcame any fear, implausibility, or gaping plot hole. If Bill believed, we believed. Shatner’s presence in any scene sends it flying, as the heroes can only stand back and watch their loopy train wreck of a God. Go, Bill Shatner, Go! The second issue is a lack of exploration of why the main characters love the old show so much in the first place. Is there some hole it fills in their lives? Why “Star Trek” and not “Star Wars”?
In the end, “Swingers” was not for every taste; neither is “Free Enterprise”. A fondness for the original series couldn’t hurt, either. This is a good comedy about two fans with a hero and a dream. Along the way, they grow a little. Ironically, the two real fans that produced it couldn’t have achieved their dream without their real-life hero. The film has a great, blow-out ending. The real story just has a happy one.