Jun 3, 2020
Battle of the Nerd Comedies: Free Enterprise (1999) vs. Fanboys (2009)
A short while back, I wrote an article comparing the documentaries Trekkies and The People vs. George Lucas. These movies looked at the appeal and devoted followings of Star Trek and Star Wars, the two most famous series in science fiction. I’m now going to compare and contrast two comedies which center on fans of these two beloved franchises.
Free Enterprise (1999)
The protagonists in this film are Mark (Eric McCormick) and Robert (Rafer Weigel), two lifelong Trekkers who are first introduced in their childhood years. Mark is first seen becoming so desperate to be let into the premiere screening of Star Trek: The Motion Picture that he races several blocks to the nearby bank in order to drag his mom to the theater, because they won’t let him in without an adult. Prior to this, though, Mark gets a vision of his idol William Shatner (played by Bill himself) who basically gives him encouragement.
At the other end of the country is the younger version of Robert (wearing a Trek shirt that’s torn, of course) in a fight with a bigger kid at his school. He, too, gets a vision of Shatner chatting it up with him. Bill even encourages Robert to kick some ass when Robert tells him that this fight started with the bully saying that Han Solo is cooler than Kirk. After Robert proceeds to hand the guy’s ass to him, he gives a modified version of Kirk’s “Risk is our business” speech from the episode “Return to Tomorrow”.
Years later, we see that Mark and Robert have met and are BFFs living in Los Angeles. Mark is trying to get his latest film idea off the ground, a slasher film called Brady Killer about (you guessed it) a guy who kills girls named Marcia, Jan, and Cindy. Robert, on the other hand, has just lost another job and his girlfriend Tricia (Jennifer Sommerfield) has left him after he decided to pawn his computer to buy various kinds of memorabilia instead of paying the rent.
The two are also bummed out because they’re both approaching the big three-O, which of course is old in Hollywood years. But they get quite the surprise one evening when they go to a bookstore and encounter Shatner himself (reading porn, no less). Although Bill is a bit weirded out by them (not that I blame him), he allows them to buy him a drink. At a restaurant, Bill gives them his own idea that he’s pushing: a musical version of Julius Caesar, with Shatner playing all the parts. It’s an original idea, I’ll grant him that.
This chance meeting allows both Mark and Robert to realize that their idol, despite his great onscreen presence, is just as human as they are. This also indirectly gives Robert the confidence to pursue a relationship with Claire (Audie England), whom he discovers is as pop culture-versed as he is after they meet in a comic book shop. At the same time, Robert and Mark give Bill the confidence to pursue restaurant owner Marlena (Deborah Van Valkenburg, and I’m sure those of us who frequent this site can tell where her character’s name comes from).
But Robert’s lack of a job (or rather, lack of discipline when it comes to keeping one) prompts him to constantly borrow money from Mark. This eventually leads to Robert’s relationship with Claire running into a rough patch when his unemployment status forces him out of his apartment. When she flat out tells him to live in the present and not the 24th Century, Robert’s response is, “I fucking hate the Next Generation!” And thank you, Star Trek: Generations, for giving him the ammo he needed for that line.
Fortunately, Robert becomes less of a dick thanks to encouragement from Bill, and makes up with Claire as he throws a birthday bash for Mark, allowing the latter to hook up with the green-painted girl on stage and for Shatner to impress the crowd with his singing. The movie ends with Robert and Mark making a movie about themselves (and amusingly, the guy who picked on Robert at the beginning is now played by a kid of lesser build). So I assume Robert eventually found another job, unless he added a few thousand more to what he owes Mark.
This film takes place in 1998. A group of friends—Windows (Jay Baruchel), Zoe (Kristen Bell), Hutch (Dan Folger), Eric (Sam Huntington), and Linus (Chris Marquette)—who love Star Wars want to see the upcoming Episode I – The Phantom Menace before anyone else, because Linus has been diagnosed with cancer. They get the bright idea to actually drive cross-country to Skywalker Ranch in order to see a print. To drive this point home further, we see our heroes have a Star Wars-painted van with a horn that sounds like Chewbacca growling.
En route, Hutch, despite the fact that his pal has only months to live, decides that this is the perfect time to actually pick a fight with some Trekkers (one of whom is played by Seth Rogen) by going to Riverside, Iowa, the supposed future birthplace of Captain Kirk.
Other mishaps include our heroes accidentally finding themselves in a gay bar where, to our horror, we must learn that Hutch has only one testicle. To add to the fun, Windows realizes that his online girlfriend is really a ten-year-old girl. Her uncle is “Harry Knowles” (played by Ethan Suplee) and he understandably beats the crap out of Windows, but stops short of killing him after the gang impresses him with their Star Wars knowledge. This leads to “Harry” giving them a contact in Las Vegas who can get them into Skywalker Ranch.
Once in Vegas, the police arrest them for possession of peyote, which they were unknowingly given earlier at a bar. But Zoe, who had turned down their initial request to join the trip, travels to Vegas to bail them out before a judge (Billy Dee Williams) with the name Reinhold. At a hotel-casino, Hutch and Windows attempt to pick up some girls whose pimp (Rogen) proudly flaunts his Jar Jar Binks tattoo, saying how awesome the character will be, while Zoe has to drill it into Windows’ head that she’s fallen for him. Why, I’m not sure, but let’s move on.
Meanwhile, Eric and Linus meet their Vegas contact, who turns out to be… William Shatner (this guy’s everywhere!). After getting the info they need, the gang bolts when the Iowa Trekkers spot them.
During their escape, Linus is injured and taken to a hospital. The doctor (Carrie Fisher) informs him that, because of his illness, he should return home. But his devotion to Star Wars and his friends encourages everyone to press on.
They reach the famous ranch, and sure enough, it doesn’t take long for security to begin chasing them down. They even briefly hide out in a garbage compactor that looks like the one on the Death Star. Just as the gang is captured, the head of security gets a phone call from George Lucas saying that he’ll drop the charges if they prove they know their Star Wars stuff. And George, after hearing of Linus’s condition, allows only him to view a cut of Phantom Menace.
Afterward, Linus joins his friends outside the Ranch and does the respectable thing and doesn’t tell them how the film was and they happily head home. The movie concludes with Eric, Hutch, Windows, and Zoe (and the latter two are now hooked up, what a surprise, right?) about to see Episode I in a theater and toasting Linus’s memory.
Which is better?
Both films have great ideas. Free Enterprise talks about how one can still love what defined them in their youth while, as Shatner puts it, adding a little reality to their imaginations in order to be happy in life. Fanboys has a nice and even sweet idea about people who want their sick pal to see a long-anticipated movie before the rest of the world does.
Free Enterprise is definitely the better of the two. While Mark and Robert are annoying at times, the movie is funnier than Fanboys, probably because it makes better use of its premise. Mark and Robert are based on the film’s respective writer and director, Mark A. Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett, both of whom have gone on to produce Star Trek documentaries and special features over the years.
England is a nice and likable love interest, and Shatner steals the show by essentially poking fun at himself. There’s even a one-liner gag regarding Shatner’s less-than-ideal relationship with his Trek co-stars (although I must point out there’s absolutely no mention of Star Trek V). But one of the funniest moments in the film is when Robert’s girlfriend Suzanne (Ellie Cornell) calls him out of the blue for the sole purpose of getting the answer to a Star Wars-related question for a crossword puzzle she’s working on.
In contrast, Fanboys basically pisses away its premise to become another stupid road trip/rom-com (although I must admit the Jar Jar tattoo gag cracked me up), complete with numerous reminders that our protagonists are virgins. To begin with, the Windows/Zoe hookup is the same stupid thing we’ve seen in countless other romantic comedies where a boy pines for a hot girl without realizing that his devoted friend, who’s a hot girl herself, is a better match for him. Heck, Zoe takes her shirt off for Windows at the beginning of the film and the dumb shit doesn’t even react. For every film that at least tries to do something interesting with this cliche, like Some Kind of Wonderful, we get a dozen like Fanboys that treat common sense as the enemy.
While there is a jab at Star Wars at the beginning of Free Enterprise, that film wisely stops there and gets on with its own story. Fanboys, though, seems to want to get most, if not all of its laughs out of how stupid Trekkers are. If jabs at Trek were that imperative to the script, instead of saying how stupid the line “Make it so!” is, why not say, since Voyager was still on the air in 1998, that Star Wars would never have such a stupid annoying character like Neelix, or make Hutch have closet fantasies about Seven of Nine?
Free Enterprise ends up succeeding because it brings feelings along with the laughs, while Fanboys seems content with stupid gags. And when a Trek fan can actually come up with better anti-Trek jokes than people who claim to hate the franchise, you know you’ve failed!