I don’t have it anymore so I can’t prove this if anyone comes asking for it, but in the press kit for Toots Thielemans’ 1992 album The Brasil Project, there’s a quote saying something to the effect of “when you mix jazz and Brazilian music, you often end up with too little of either.” I’m not sure why this has stuck with me for the last 29 years, but it’s a fairly succinct way of breaking down creative arithmetic, a nebulous discipline in which 1+1 often = 0. You can have some truly spectacular ingredients on paper, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to add up to anything people will enjoy watching, reading, or listening to; sometimes, when it comes to the parts of a piece of art, less is decidedly more.
I was reminded of that press kit while watching 1974’s Freebie and the Bean, a buddy cop comedy whose dire Rotten Tomatoes score should have been enough to warn me away but was somehow overpowered by the knowledge that the picture stars Alan Arkin and James Caan, a pair of actors whose Some Guy credentials are truly beyond reproach. Okay, so Caan is or was a Trump supporter. He seems less obnoxious on that continuum than, say, James Woods or Scott Baio, and anyway, Alan Arkin is terrific — putting these two together as a couple of mismatched police officers had to be comedy gold, right?
As a child of the ’80s, it’s easy for me to assume that the buddy cop comedy started really hitting bottom in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when shit like Tango & Cash and The Last Boy Scout skidded into theaters on the fumes of the Lethal Weapon franchise. But the reality is that for every terrific picture about a pair of heroes who sort of hate each other, there’s a bunch of stupid bullshit that never should have been made, and that was true even in the early ’70s. Freebie and the Bean is an awful example of this principle in action.
Despite what the above picture is trying to tell you, the movie gets off to a halfway decent start. We meet Arkin (Bean) and Caan (Freebie) as they’re stealing and rooting through the garbage of local bookie Red Meyers (the Oscar-nominated Jack Kruschen) in an attempt to find proof that he is in fact a local bookie. The dialogue informs us that they’ve been at this for over a year, and that Red Meyers is also apparently rather voracious in the sack. It’s a dirty job, but all that hard work is about to pay off, because they find incriminating receipts in the middle of all this trash. Freebie and the Bean have their man, and we’ve got ourselves a plot.
Like I said, it isn’t a bad setup for a buddy cop picture. The problem, unfortunately, is just about everything that comes after. We soon discover that Freebie is so named because he has a tendency to steal or grift whenever possible, while Bean — who, I remind you, is played by Alan Arkin — has his nickname because he’s Mexican. (We learn this when Freebie screams “Kiss my ass, you Mexican,” thus setting the execrable tone for the rest of Freebie and the Bean.)
And okay, look, if we’re disqualifying buddy cop movies due to shitty cops and racism, we’ll be tossing out more than one widely accepted classic of the genre, but it’s the leeringly aggressive way this movie leans into its dumb conceit that makes it particularly appalling. In one scene, Freebie leans on the manager of a haberdashery to give him free clothes by threatening to call the fire marshal. It’s the kind of thing that might have played as charming with a different actor, but Caan doesn’t have a light enough touch to make you feel anything other than a need to shower.
And then there’s Bean. To watch this movie is to strike a devil’s bargain with a piece of shit that demands you accept the existence of a world in which everyone believes Alan Arkin is a Mexican man married to his Mexican wife (played by Valerie Harper, whose extremely thankless role involves singing “Besame Mucho” at one point). The only good thing about any of this is that no actual real-life Mexicans were required to listen to lines like “Why do you got that dumb worried wetback greaser look on your face,” or to act out scenes like the closing one, in which (spoiler alert) Bean comes back from seemingly certain death to croak “I need tacos.”
There are a handful of halfway decent things I could say about this film. There’s the aforementioned cast, for one, including the always welcome Alex Rocco as the requisite angry superior:
It’s also difficult to deny that Arkin and Caan have an appealing chemistry, even hamstrung as they are by a horrible film that can’t decide whether it wants to be a satire or an action thriller or just completely fucking offensive. The script is stupid and the direction is atrocious, but you can still sense the feeble pulse of the movie that might have been if these two had been united in service of something that actually deserved to get made. Director Richard Rush, already widely regarded as a washout at this point, would later go on to helm the somewhat interesting The Stunt Man, starring Peter O’Toole. Here, he lived down to his reputation by seemingly ordering his leading men to shout over one another whenever possible in order to simulate something like snappy repartee — it never works — but there are still moments when they manage to claw ever so slightly above the senseless din. It’s part of what keeps you watching Freebie and the Bean.
The other part is trying to figure out what the hell is going on. There’s genuinely no rhyme or reason to this story — Freebie and the Bean are ostensibly tasked with keeping Red Meyers alive long enough for him to be collared, which means tailing him and protecting him from the hit out on him, but it’s almost always damn near impossible to understand who they’re even talking to, let alone why. The movie just lurches from one dumb set piece to the next, with Freebie and the Bean growing ever more incompetent at every turn. More than once, one or both of them will end up in some long, drawn-out fight with a perp, only to draw out a gun at the end and shoot them over and over again. More than once, they’re involved in ridiculously over-the-top car chases to little or no discernible purpose. One of these chases depicts members of a high school marching band being mowed down and concludes in the movie’s big scene, which finds our two morons sailing off an overpass in their car and plowing through the wall of an elderly couple’s apartment.
There’s a school of thought that says Freebie and the Bean is supposed to be some sort of satire, and if you squint hard enough, you can see it. After awhile, it becomes obvious that these two jerks are supposed to represent police corruption, or the goofily bulletproof nature of movie cops, or…I don’t know, something that justifies their ability to get mixed up in all manner of death-defying stunts and emerge with nothing so much as a scratch. But the rest of the movie around them is too dumb and chaotic to support any of that — very little of it seems to be played for laughs, and few of the characters behave in any way that would indicate they’re part of the joke.
In the end, all you’re left with is a series of incidents, a few random plot points, and the upsetting knowledge that you have wasted two hours of your life hoping in vain that a movie starring Alan Arkin and James Caan as mismatched cops will somehow finally fucking spark to life. In a lot of cases, even a subpar Some Guy Cinema entry can be a halfway decent amount of fun, but as far as this movie is concerned, you’re better off watching a toddler play with toy cars. The crashes will be just as inventive, and the risk of hearing James Caan scream racial slurs is far lower.
No it isn’t. I give Freebie and the Bean one out of five Scheiders.