“How can you know the name of every episode of that f*cking television show, but you can’t manage to pay a $16 gas bill?”
If you’ve never heard of FREE ENTERPRISE, that’s perfectly understandable. After a festival run, it was barely released into a handful of Los Angeles theaters in June 1999; just one week after THE PHANTOM MENACE broke records and hearts. Thanks to word of mouth, a couple of DVD releases, and a regular rotation on the SyFy channel in the early aughts, the film has a small but loyal cult following today. Perhaps a cult following is the best that a movie like FREE ENTERPRISE could hope for. After all, of the countless 1990’s indie features focusing on over-educated, pop culture obsessed but ultimately lost twentysomethings, only FREE ENTERPRISE took those tropes and showed them through the eyes of two Trekkies.
The film was the first from Robert Meyer Burnett and Mark A. Altman, two friends working their way up the ranks in the industry. Altman was the head editor for Geek magazine, a favorite of SciFi and genre fans, and Burnett had an impressive list of production credits. They shared a passion for all things cinema, but especially the SciFi genre and the Star Trek television series and films in particular. As the legend goes (according to the DVD commentary) the two were driving around Los Angeles one day with a female friend, discussing Trek. The amused friend told them that they should make a film about that; essentially a film about themselves. Though they started it as a lark, exchanging notes and script pages back and forth, they soon realized they had something.
Their script focused on Robert and Mark (get it?) two SciFi obsessed friends on the verge of turning 30. Mark is an editor for Geek Monthly, a type-A jerk who will reach the milestone first. Robert, his best friend, is an film editor of Z-grade SciFi and horror schlock (when he feels like showing up for work, that is) who’s in tremendous debt as he prefers to spend what little money he has on action figures and laserdiscs instead of say, rent and bills. Both believe that the answers to all of life’s mysteries and challenges can be found in the gospel of the 60’s Trek series, personified by their imaginary friend, William Shatner. Pitching their concept of SWINGERS meets PLAY IT AGAIN SAM the duo secured funding and a start date. All they had to do now was get William Shatner to sign on.
There was a small problem, though. Shatner said no.
Following his final appearance as the legendary Captain James T. Kirk in 1994’s STAR TREK: GENERATIONS, Shatner's career had hit a slump. Without his most iconic role calling him back to action every couple of years, he was reduced to TV movies and sitcom guest spots (often playing himself.) In his own words, he was “embarrassed” by Burnett and Altman’s vision of him in their script for FREE ENTERPRISE. Although it was long known by general audiences that Shatner had a legendarily inflated ego, even he bristled at the notion of essentially playing God in their universe -- appearing to dispense advice, play it cool, and then disappear. In a panic, Altman and Burnett tried to change his mind (and even crafted an alternate script where Trek wouldn’t exist, and the pair were instead obsessed with a show titled “Solar Quest,” gaining help from an imaginary doppelganger of Shatner (they apparently had Robert Wagner in mind for the role) with little success. Though Shatner insisted he wouldn’t do the film, he urged them to try a draft that humanized him, making him a “screwed up guy.” This went back and forth for some time, multiple drafts being reshaped to fit their reluctant star’s demands. Finally, Shatner agreed and signed on to play “Bill.”
There’s not much in the way of plot with FREE ENTERPRISE. Mark (Eric McCormack of “Will and Grace”) and Robert (Rafer Weigl) exist in a state of arrested development. In between nights out on the town, laserdisc shopping sprees, and trips to Toys ‘R’ Us, the pair run into Bill Shatner in a bookstore, thumbing through an issue of Penthouse. Overjoyed at meeting their hero, their illusions are quickly shattered when Bill drunkenly pitches them his dream project: a musical of the complete text of Julius Caesar where he’ll play all the roles (except for Calpurnia, for which he wants Sharon Stone.) Meanwhile, Robert meets the too-good-to-be-true girl of his dreams, Claire (Audie England) a beautiful fangirl that makes him reconsider his spending habits, and Mark notices that his palm is blinking red (the film’s best comedic set piece revolves around Mark’s nightmare of living out LOGAN’S RUN.) All the while, the bumbling and freeloading Bill continues to push himself into their lives.
What makes FREE ENTERPRISE so memorable and fun is the affection it has for its characters. Unlike the mean-spirited othering of the leads from the inexplicably popular “The Big Bang Theory,” this film acknowledges while there are definitely some areas that the characters need to mature in, there’s nothing wrong with their lives. They’re geeks, for lack of a better term, and damn proud of it. Long before it became “in” to be a nerd, these guys were out there filling their apartments with action figures, perusing back issues at the comic store, and hunting down special edition laserdiscs (the film went into production shortly before DVDs, then considered a risky proposition, quickly overtook the home video market.) Watching these guys quote movie dialogue back and forth, geek out over their home video collections, and plan a birthday around a retrospective film screening touches a nerve because, well, I’ve done every single one of those things. And I suspect many, many others have too. This movie could have only come from a real place, and it shows in every frame. It also provided the career resurgence of one William Shatner, who gives a fantastic meta-performance: hilarious, self-mocking, and surprisingly touching. Without FREE ENTERPRISE, we may have never gotten those hysterical Priceline commercials or his second greatest role as the brilliant, ailing attorney Denny Crane on “Boston Legal”.
Fans have long hoped for a sequel. In an era of blu-ray, Netflix, comic book event films every other weekend during the summer, and J.J. Abrams divisive reboot of the Trek films, one can only imagine what a now 40-year-old Robert and Mark would be like. Depending on whom you ask, FREE ENTERPRISE 2: THE SEARCH FOR SHATNER was a mere 48 hours away from shooting in 2010 before funding fell through. Burnett and Altman discussed the script as a special feature on the 2006 special edition DVD, hinting at a wedding plot and a supporting role for Leonard Nimoy. More recently, they launched a Kickstarter to produce a pilot for a “Free Enterprise” TV show. Sadly, they weren’t able to raise the funds they had hoped for.
So FREE ENTERPRISE remains something of a lost gem, one that is definitely worth seeking out. Fittingly, given its protagonist’s obsessive love of home media, it remains only on DVD, no streaming services. It’s hilarious, it’s relatable, and its climactic scenes revolve around Shatner rapping verses from Julius Caesar. Really, what more could you ask for?