George Washington/Kevin Sorbo tells Bernie a thing or two.
I knew what I was getting into when I watched the new Bernie Sanders "satire" Free Lunch Express. Producer and Mendon resident Bradford Broyles, who contacted me about the film, is the president of Vermont-based Right and Funny Productions. The film's executive producer, Lenore Broughton, is one of Vermont's biggest Republican donors. "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" star Kevin Sorbo, who makes a cameo in the film, has gained quite a bit of notice lately for his right-of-center views.
In a recent Daily Beast interview, which is an excellent read, Marlow Stern quizzes Sorbo about his role in the Bernie film and the film's many inaccuracies when it comes to Sanders' bio, including its depiction of the young Bernie as entering into a blood pact with Josef Stalin.
So, yeah. This film has a point of view. But why should left-wingers and counterculture types have a monopoly on political satire? To explore how comedy looks from the other side, I watched Free Lunch Express and wrote a little real-time viewing diary.
First, a disclaimer: I did not attempt to fact-check this movie. I'm very much not a political reporter or a Bernie expert, but even I could see that writer-director (and 2010 Vermont senatorial candidate!) Lenny Britton was aiming for a level of comic absurdity with a rather — no, extremely — tenuous relationship to historical reality.
Here are some highlights:
Courtesy of Right and Funny Productions
Malcolm McDowell is Not Impressed with Bernie Sanders as the Narrator.
Malcolm McDowell, the '60s icon who starred in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange before becoming one of Hollywood's favorite Creepy Villainous British Guys, narrates this movie. And not just in voiceover! He reclines in an armchair in a mansion with a string quartet in the background, à la Alistair Cooke in the old "Masterpiece Theatre" intro. After exclaiming, "Dear old Bernie. What a story," McDowell recites some faux nursery rhymes to preview the tale we're about to see.
The scene opens on a young Bernie (Jonah Britton) who is basically the wimpy Jojo from Jojo Rabbit, only with Josef Stalin as his idol/imaginary friend instead of Hitler. (Taika Waititi's anti-fascist satire came out in 2019, so the resemblance is presumably coincidental. For my money, speaking as no great fan of either film, Jojo Rabbit is funnier.)
Eager for revenge on the rich bullies who stole his lunch, Bernie pledges himself to bringing down capitalism, declaring, "I'm ready, Comrade Stalin" in a bedroom full of Communist propaganda. His Brooklyn accent is not good. Two more actors will play Bernie, but this will become a running theme.
Suddenly, in When Harry Met Sally... fashion, the film becomes a mockumentary! Talking heads give their impressions of the young Bernie, e.g., "He really enjoyed doing things with other people's money."
The twentysomething Bernie, now played by Sam Brittan, goes to Vermont because it supposedly has a lenient welfare system. On the bus, he meets the ghost of George Washington, played by Sorbo, who enjoins him to "get your mind right" and recognize the greatness of America, as well as predicting that he will someday be a 1 percenter. Naturally, Bernie ignores this advice.
The film's version of Bernie is … kind of likable? Basically, he's a slacker whose one aspiration is to enjoy the good life without working, much like Bill and Ted or Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He's the slob in every comedy who pisses off the squares. I dunno. I'm kinda rooting for him.
The "hippie chicks" who share a commune with Bernie are way too well-groomed to be hippie chicks. One of them is fat, which is played for comic effect.
Hippies in this movie say things like "We were just discussing ways to stick it to the man."
Lisa Blake Richards, who plays the city hall clerk whom Bernie torments with his welfare claims, has some quite funny reaction shots. Plus, she was on "Dark Shadows" in the '60s. MVP of this film?
The movie depicts Bernie as spending 40 years of his life without gainful employment before he figures out that running for elected office is "a license to steal." Even then, it takes a nudge from Imaginary Stalin to make him run for mayor of Burlington. Somehow I doubt this is precisely how things went down, but hey, satire!
I finally laughed at something! During a sequence in which Bernie honeymoons with his first wife in Soviet Moscow (because of course), he begs her to have marital relations in their bugged room, saying, "I wanna make a good impression on the comrades." What can I say? The delivery was funny. The subsequent milking of the joke, with disgusted KGB agents listening in as Bernie feigns wild passion, not so much.
Another mildly funny element: Bernie is repeatedly shown brainstorming the next step in his political career with Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who are depicted as his stoner pals. While Ben does most of the talking, Jerry periodically has a flavor epiphany: "Chunky Monkey!" he croons, and their next blockbuster product is born.
Not so funny: Right before Bernie heads to Congress, he's depicted as shaking down Ben and Jerry for cash in return for unspecified political favors.
Bernie's early congressional platform: Make the wealthy pay 100 percent of their income and "work in factories, possibly the salt mines." According to this film, the only reasons anyone voted for Bernie were (1) he opposed gun control and (2) ... ? Or, in the words of McDowell, "Are all Vermonters on drugs?"
The last third of this movie, the one in which Bernie gets old, runs for president and becomes a national icon, is really, really rushed. As Older Bernie, Charles Hutchins doesn't pull off much of an impersonation.
Courtesy of Right and Funny Productions
Bernie and Hillary attempt to negotiate.
If you want to see a satire of Bernie bros, or even a recognition that Bernie really connected with the young folks, you're out of luck. At this point, the movie seems less interested in ridiculing Bernie than in skewering Jane Sanders (Elaine Ballace); the Burlington College scandal gets a lot of play.
Another target is Hillary Clinton (Cynthia Kania), who growls at Bernie, "I will kick your little commie ass from here to Des Moines." She and Jane come close to having a cat fight, after which Hillary bribes Bernie to bow out of the race with a mansion on Lake Champlain (actually shot somewhere in California).
Naturally, AOC (Laura Aleman) also has to show up. There's a scene in which she and Bernie bond over cocktail recipes and cat videos, and it's actually kinda sweet.
The film boils Bernie's message down to "I hate rich people." Late in the film, he laments, "I thought there'd be more chicks." So basically, he's the hapless slacker hero of every broad comedy ever made.
Remember how we're told at the end of National Lampoon's Animal House that John Belushi's fun-loving, anarchic Bluto will someday become a U.S. Senator? Free Lunch Express is like the feature film version of that gag.
Fact-based, the movie is mostly not. Funny, rarely. Incisively satirical or insightful about the Bernie phenomenon — I'm going to say nope. Likely to change the mind of anyone who ever cast a vote for Bernie? Nope again, given that it never acknowledges why anyone would vote for him in the first place.
But hey, it is a movie that exists. And it's tolerably paced for a low-budget film and does conform to the expectations of its genre. It also might make a great gift for your crotchety Republican uncle, if you two are still talking after the election. You can rent Free Lunch Express on various streaming platforms.