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Free Money
(1998)
 

Director: Yves Simoneau            
Cast:
Marlon Brando, Charlie Sheen, Thomas Haden Church


There are bad movies that are made that start off with genuinely good ideas and good intentions, but end up being bad despite the honest effort of everyone involved for one reason or another. Then there are bad movies that are made with a dubious premise, but you sense the sincerity of the talent in front of and behind the camera, and you can understand why there were people who felt it could work. After all, if you twist that premise around in your mind, you can uncover a germ of an idea hidden in there somewhere. Then there are bad movies that are simply so wrong in every possible aspect, including those that would have been immediately evident during the filming, that you are simply stunned by the fact that there was apparently nobody around during the production who took even a glimpse of what was happening and observed that there was something very seriously wrong going on here. Then there are bad movies like the Canadian Free Money, a movie so bad and so wrong-headed in every way possible that I think it manages to sink even lower than that rock-bottom level I described in the previous sentence. It is a true disaster, one that not only stuns you with its utter badness, but that it managed to gather together so much professional talent willing to work on it, none of whom at any point seemed to see anything wrong. The only time sanity seems to have brushed by this movie was when it was shopped around to various North American theatrical distributors. Wisely, none of them would touch the movie, resulting in it subsequently being quietly dumped on the video market.

It is perhaps appropriate that such an utterly moronic comedy should take place in and with the inhabitants of Hicksville. This particular backwater's biggest feature is its maximum security prison, run by Shellshocked by their experience from this movie, Church and Sheen neverless let out a small sign they are happy it's all over."The Swede" (Brando), a rough and gruff warden who likes to get his laughs by hunting down escaped convicts and shooting them point blank range in the back of their necks. So it's not a surprise he explodes when his twin high school daughters announce to him that they are both pregnant from the two utter losers they've been dating, Bud (Sheen) and Larry (Church). Actually, one of the girls at this point - or is it both of them? - actually isn't pregnant, in a subplot that goes absolutely nowhere, but it doesn't seem to ever matter to The Swede one way or another in the end. Not only does he force Bud and Larry to marry his daughters, but he quickly starts making his new son-in-laws' lives a living hell when a number of circumstances soon have the two couples living with The Swede under his roof, placing exceeding rules and chores onto them. And if they should fail to satisfy him, The Swede has them bend over and applies a phallic-shaped electric cattle prod on their behinds. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so Bud and Larry soon hatch a wild scheme to get them the title stuff so they can escape from their hellish lives: They will hijack and rob the train from Canada that passes through their community once a year when shipping back worn-out American currency to the U.S. Mint. As you've probably guessed with all these wacky characters running around, no part of the scheme goes well for anyone it touches directly or indirectly.

Free Money goes wrong in every way possible that it's difficult to know where to start in detailing its problems. Since "actors" starts with an A, and "characters" is only a little further down that alphabetical list, I might as well start at those points. It's kind of a moot point to criticize Charlie Sheen (who bills himself here as Charles Sheen) when you consider his resume is full of mediocre past performances, I know, but all the same he definitely deserves some black marks here. For one thing, there is no real sign that he is trying to give more than the bare minimum that will give him his paycheck. He is visibly tired and utterly bewildered, never going to the trouble to put any effort into giving a personal touch to anything he says or does, which might have helped develop his character even just a little.

However, Sheen's confusion and lack of effort is understandable under the circumstances, because the movie gives him nothing to work with. He's not even introduced until the actual wedding ceremony. We never learn anything about this character other than he has the basic human desires of wanting good sex and living in a paradise with a lot of money. All of this is the same with the character that Thomas Hayden Church (who?) plays, though Church manages to comes across even worse than Sheen. While Sheen walks through in a quiet daze, Church seems to be inspired by his internal confusion and makes his character a whiney and blubbering wimp. If his character had shown the least bit of backbone and effort in trying to help himself, his reactions to his predicaments might have been funny. Instead, it is infuriating to endlessly sit through the whimpers of a wimp who can't do anything for himself. It's the kind of character who can only become more likable should you apply a two-by-four to his head. It goes without saying that you can forget about any possible chemistry occurring with Sheen and Church being put together at any particular moment. You don't get the sense that they are really seeing and acknowledging the other; it's almost as if each of them was filmed separately (and in different galaxies) and both reels of footage were pasted together. There's an air around these guys that's both bizarre and artificial, and it's nothing that we can relate to.

Sheen and Church are not the only actors who are saddled with characters that don't make a whole lot of sense. Mira Sorvino, continuing her decline (that previously included New York Cop) after winning an Oscar just a few years earlier, is totally miscast as an FBI agent who starts snooping around after the train Sutherland gives this movie the only thing resembling artrobbery. Her character totally lacks the coolness and professional thoroughness real life agents have. Though I know the movie is supposed to be a comedy, her attitude is just so unbelievable that it becomes exasperating instead of amusing. In fairness to her, she is working with a very badly written character, one that not only has no real influence on the events in the end, but has the beginnings of a subplot (she ran away from town years ago, and now has returned to her estranged father) than is abandoned almost as soon as it's introduced. Despite the fact that prominent actor Donald Sutherland plays that father, a judge who happens to be the confident of The Swede as well, his role turns out to be even more useless, and all he ends up doing is dropping in on occasion to say or do something of little significance that could easily be written out or given to somebody else. In fact, all of his screen time combined takes up less than five minutes. Aside from possibly an effort to have another well-known star in the movie, there's only one possible explanation Sutherland seems to be here; knowing the bizarre rules the Canadian government has for a film to be considered "Canadian", the production needed a Canadian star to be the first or second highest paid actor. So they hired him for two days work at the most, but paid him enough to make him the highest paid cast member apart from Brando.

And Brando... well, you can't really say that the mighty have fallen in a case like this, because even at his age Brando still has the clout to find himself a good project should he want to. He chose this project over everything else he was undoubtedly offered, a disturbing thing to think of. What's even more disturbing is that Brando was reportedly given free reign in Free Money to go any which way he wanted, and the results speak for themselves. With a partially shaved head of hair dyed red (and with the words JESUS SAVES tattooed on his bald spot) and a big bushy moustache, he is not only unrecognizable, but looks so grotesque that he looks ill instead of goofy-looking. Maybe he was ill during the production, which might explain why he's seen sitting down in almost every scene and why his speech is so slurry you can't understand what he's saying about half of the time. Apparently forgetting that he's funny when spoofing his great image (like in The Freshman), Brando instead goes for a more blatant slapstick performance, uttering threats like "I'll tear your nuts off and sew them in your mouth!", falling down in a faint and landing on the ground with a big thud, and in the worst bit, falling head-first into a toilet bowl and getting his head stuck.

Must I mention that simple-minded gags such of these are not funny, as well as being so tired and familiar? I will admit that Brando's style of humor is no better or worse than any of the other attempts in Free Money. Actually, maybe in one aspect it's better, because in much of the movie there isn't any attempt at humor. There are many times when the movie forgets it's a "Don't these suspenders give me the illusion I'm slimmer than I actually am?"comedy, and essentially just seems to be about Bud and Larry finding their lives becoming genuinely crappier and crappier. Even though we couldn't care less about these losers, these parts do put a sour mood over the entire movie. Then there are moments that are extremely questionable to ever appear in a comedy. Maybe there are a few people out there who find such topics as miscarriage, bloody prison fist-fights, and people getting bloody gun wounds (some of which being the fatal kind) funny to the point of tears, but I don't personally know anybody who does. All this is no funnier than the actual attempts at humor. I realize everyone has a unique sense of humor, but I really don't think anyone of reasonable intelligence will find a car stuck in mud hilarious, or hillbilly music being played during a car chase. Nor will they find anything clever or original elsewhere. One part of the movie has The Swede getting the prized truck he's been scrimping and saving up for many years, and the truck ends up... Failed movie gags seldom get more unclever and unoriginal as that.

Free Money had quite a substantial budget ($30 million), but even if you consider Brando's salary took up a fair portion of that, the movie sure doesn't look like that amount was spent on it. In fact, the movie has the look of a typical cheaply-made episode of a Canadian prime-time dramatic series. To put it another way, this is one of the ugliest-looking movies I've seen in quite a while. French-Canadian director Simoneau puts a curious retro feel to the sets and costumes, which seem right out of the '50s and '60s, jarring badly with the various modern references that creep in. He also seems to have wanted the visual look of the movie to bring out the color of puce. I doubt if that color scheme was unintentional, considering just how badly put together the rest of the movie is. Scenes seem to start in midstream, or end before they seemingly should be finished, and there's at least one instance where footage gets recycled. It's just the capper to a movie gone completely wrong, and you again have to wonder just what everyone involved was thinking. Maybe they were thinking that, unlike other Canadian productions, they were making a real movie. But this isn't real - it's surreal.
 


UPDATE: Michael Prymula sent me this:

"Your wondering why this film is so inconsistent at times and why Brando chose it? Well according to the DVD commentary Brando didn't choose this project, because Free Money was actually Brando's project from the beginning. The director pretty much did whatever Brando told him to do, he rewrote significant portions of the script every day to accommodate whatever new ideas Brando came up with, that explains a lot about why the film is so surreal and unfocused. Despite all that though, I will admit to getting some enjoyment from this film from the sheer weirdness of it."

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Check Amazon for Marlon Brando's autobiography

See also: Find The Lady, Heaven Before I Die, The In-Laws

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