Fast, funny and inventive, "Free Enterprise" might be described as "Swingers" meets "Trekkies." The story of two aspiring filmmakers whose chance meeting with their TV idol forces a process of self-discovery, it took best picture and best screenplay honors in the New Directions sidebar of the AFI fest. Pic will continue to inspire strong word of mouth at fests, and that buzz and careful handling could well turn it into a specialized hit.

Fast, funny and inventive, “Free Enterprise” might be described as “Swingers” meets “Trekkies.” The story of two aspiring filmmakers whose chance meeting with their TV idol forces a process of self-discovery, it took best picture and best screenplay honors in the New Directions sidebar of the AFI fest. Pic will continue to inspire strong word of mouth at fests, and that buzz and careful handling could well turn it into a specialized hit.

Semi-autobiographical tale about a pair of guys anxiously facing 30 benefits from a smart, pop-culturally literate script, energetic performances and a directorial approach that never takes itself too seriously.

Robert (Rafer Weigel) and Mark (Eric McCormack) are the would-be filmmakers; brought up on the “Star Wars” trilogy and “Star Trek” reruns, they filter everyday experiences through their knowledge of science fiction and ’70s TV shows.

Pic opens with Mark wryly pitching “Bradykiller” — about a serial killer who targets victims named Marcia, Jan and Cindy — in a scene played with admirable economy. Mark’s pitch is brisk, articulate and loaded with pop culture references — a description that pertains equally to his character, his film and “Free Enterprise.”

When Robert and Mark meet their idol, William Shatner (himself), the unexpected encounter leads to a friendship. Both men have worshipped Shatner since childhood, and early flashbacks have him appearing as a bemused fairy godfather to offer them guidance at critical junctures. Brief and effective, these sequences provide useful exposition without derailing the story. They also pay homage to Woody Allen, as the Shatner of Mark and Robert’s boyhood memories emerges from the shadows, much like Bogart in “Play It Again, Sam,” to offer droll commentary on social dilemmas and fashion choices.

But the Shatner they meet as adults is another person altogether. Instead of confidently fighting off intergalactic foes or seducing attractive babes like Captain Kirk, he’s a self-deprecating, middle-aged guy who can’t get a date and urges them to “call me Bill.” In fact, when they spot Bill in a bookshop, he’s perusing a porno magazine.

The sardonic charm with which Shatner pokes fun at his onscreen persona works well here. The actor, who apparently encouraged writers Mark Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett to darken his character, makes light of his prima donna reputation , career missteps and lofty ambitions. Bill’s greatest goal, he tells the young men (who promptly recoil in horror), is to mount an epic musical production of “Julius Caesar” in which he plays all the parts.

Realizing their hero is as misguided as they are, Mark and Robert make several key decisions. Robert embarks on a relationship with his dream girl, Claire (Audie England), who’s also a sci-fi fan but more practical than he. Relationship causes some friction between the two guys and creates some second and third act problems, as the conflict isn’t always sharply defined, and some scenes don’t move the story forward.

By the time Altman and Burnett tie it all together in a fitting finale, however, they’ve easily redeemed the faults, especially with a finale that allows Shatner to sing. Anyone who recalls his deadpan covers of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” from the “Golden Throats” compilation album will be tickled by the climactic scene, which offers one of the most original Shakespeare homages ever mounted.

Non-Trekkies might wish to bury pic, not to praise it. “Free Enterprise” does containa plethora of sci-fi allusions, some of which are so cleverly worked into the script they are easy to overlook. However, there’s more than enough for the lay person. The cast, under Burnett’s assured direction, is uniformly strong, especially McCormack (co-star of TV’s “Will and Grace”) and Weigel, who are almost never offscreen.

Tech values are also fine: Charles Barbee’s lensing gives L.A.’s nightspots and diners a hip “Swingers” look. The upbeat, jazzy music by Scott Spock — yes , Spock — is another bonus.

Free Enterprise

Production

A Mindfire Entertainment production. Produced by Dan Bates, Mark Altman, Alan Kaufman. Executive producers, Mark Gottwald, Ellie Gottwald. Directed by Robert Meyer Burnett. Screenplay, Burnett, Mark Altman.

Crew

Camera (color), Charles L. Barbee; editor, Burnett; music, Scott Spock; music supervisors, Spring Aspers, Allen Kaufman; production designer, Cynthia Halligan; costume designer, Ann Lambert; sound, James H. Coburn; assistant director, James Grayford; casting, Linda Francis. Reviewed at AFI/L.A. Film Festival (New Directions), Oct. 26, 1998. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

Robert - Rafer Weigel
Mark - Eric McCormack
Claire - Audie England
Sean - Patrick Van Horn
Dan Vebber - Jonathan Slavin
Eric Wallace - Phil LaMarr
Bill - William Shatner
Marlena - Deborah Van Valkenberg
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