A pair of titles featuring young guns, old pros and lessons learned.
It must be both tough and easy to make a film which falls into the coming-of-age genre. On the one hand, such stories have incredibly familiar tropes. The biggest of these is the central character; the young, scrappy protagonist who thinks they know more than they do, or in some cases knows nothing whatsoever. At the same time, the multitude of landscapes on which such stories can play out is vast and continuously lends itself to a variety of different ways in which such stories can be told. For people of my generation, the ultimate coming-of-age story remains 2000’s Almost Famous. Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical recounting of his early rock journalist days was the perfect illustration of both our own uncertainties and the unshakable drive that lay within, delivering in the way any good coming-of-age story should. Recently, Mill Creek got into the coming-of-age genre with a pair of releases new to blu-ray, 1986’s Crossroads and 1990’s The Freshman; both titles featuring young men with specific destinies in their heads and the older pros who have seen it all.
In Crossroads, music student Eugene (Ralph Macchio) has what it takes to be a top classical musician, but dreams about becoming the next great blues man just like his idol Willie Brown (Jon Seneca). When Eugene discovers Willie living in a retirement home incognito, he takes a job as a custodian just to get close to him. As soon as Willie discovers he’s been found out, the pair go on the road in an effort to reach the Mississippi Delta and the unseen crossroads where he once made a fateful deal.
There’s a real richness to Crossroads that other coming-of-age stories just don’t have. Maybe it’s in its pairing of two such different characters whose only commonality is their shared love of music. The scenes featuring the central pair going back and forth, feeding off of each other, is easily where the film succeeds most. Watching the moments when Willy brings Eugene back down to earth by reminding him that he still has a lot to learn when it comes to mastering the blues is just as entertaining as seeing Eugene convince Willy that the music remains in him no matter how hard he tries to hide from it.
If the sub-plot featuring a beautiful hitchhiker (Jami Gertz) doesn’t do much expect provide some nice back and forth between characters, the constant music throughout the film is never anything less than pure fire. There’s a magical realism element which opens Crossroads and is referred to from time to time until the movie’s powerhouse finale which remains intriguing. Yet the real joy of the movie is watching these characters from two opposite ends of the spectrum meet in the middle of their very own personal crossroads.
It doesn’t take long after college-bound Clark’s (Matthew Broderick) arrival in New York City before he is robbed of all his possessions by a swindler named Victor (Bruno Kirby). When Clark tracks Victor down, he tries to make things right by offering him a job with his uncle Carmine (Marlon Brando), a revered mafia kingpin who wants Clark to run an errand for him. Soon the naive youngster finds himself having to pick up and deliver an endangered komodo dragon while fending off the advances of Carmine’s headstrong daughter, Tina (Penelope Ann Miller) who instantly decides she and Clark are to be married.
Back when the summer movie season could be enjoyed by grown-ups and not just their offspring, a movie like The Freshman had the chance to thrive. This early 90s screwball comedy is nothing but pure joy with its larger-than-life characters and situations that could only happen in a grounded comic reality. Easily the best film writer/director Andrew Bergman ever made, The Freshman is part tongue-in-cheek and part farce with Broderick doing his best post-Bueller work as the boy in the big city who gets in way over his head.
Miller easily fits into the role of the Italian mafia daughter so perfectly, it’s a shame she didn’t score an Oscar nod for it (her exchange with one of Clark’s professor’s is such a standout scene). But it’s Brando who naturally carries the movie away with every scene he’s in. Both he and the movie create the perfect comic take on the actor’s legendary Godfather character, which results in the acting legend at his most playful. The Freshman remains well-paced, filled with laughs and is truly a fish out of water affair with Clark learning more than he ever bargained for.