In comedy, some things are beyond planning — they just have to happen — and Leslie Nielsen’s face in The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear is one of them. With his soothing middle-aged cragginess, his warm smile and full head of neatly combed white hair, he could almost be the vice president of a small Midwestern insurance company. Yet there’s a subliminal goofiness to him. It’s there in his eyes, which don’t so much twinkle as dance around on the verge of a twinkle. He’s a walking contradiction, an invisibly bent straight arrow.
When professional cutups David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker — the trio that created Airplane! — picked Nielsen to play the venerable, klutzy, and spectacularly literal-minded Det. Frank Drebin in their 1982 television series, Police Squad!, the reason for casting him seemed obvious: Who better to star in a close-to-the bone parody of bad late-’60s TV cop shows than an actor who used to star in…bad late-’60s TV cop shows? As Drebin, Nielsen had the sort of blandly stolid demeanor that couldn’t be faked. He was Generic Detective incarnate — you almost couldn’t imagine his forthright, melodious baritone wrapping itself around anything but mediocre television dialogue.
But when ZAZ decided to turn their short-lived series into a movie, Nielsen proved he was more than just a great found object. In The Naked Gun, he brought an underlying absurdist glee to the role, sending himself up by playing Drebin 99.9 percent straight. He turned out to be a dream actor for ZAZ, whose brand of aggressive conceptual humor has always depended on duplicating, to an unprecedented degree, the form of whatever it is they’re parodying. The Naked Gun had moments — such as Nielsen’s baseball-field rendition of ”The Star-Spangled Banner” — as delirious as anything in an American comedy in years. To me, it was the single most inspired gagfest since the early, funny days of Woody Allen.
The Naked Gun 2 1/2 isn’t in that league; for the most part, it lacks the manic highs of the earlier film, and of Airplane!, too. Yet it’s consistently funny and inventive. This one was directed by David Zucker, whose two former teammates now have careers of their own. (His brother, Jerry, directed Ghost, and Jim Abrahams, who helmed the 1988 Lily Tomlin-Bette Midler farce Big Business, has an Airplane!-style parody of Top Gun, called Hot Shots. By now, the group’s slapstick-collage style is so well established that they don’t all need to be there. In Naked Gun 2 1/2, David Zucker, working from a script he cowrote with Pat Proft (a collaborator on Police Squad!), proves he can carry the ZAZ torch solo.
Like the first Naked Gun, The Naked Gun 2 1/2 spins a promiscuous onslaught of jokes out of a surprisingly logical plot — a meticulous compendium of cop-movie cliches. This time, Frank is on the tail of an oily thug (Robert Goulet) who has kidnapped President Bush’s new environmental adviser and stolen Frank’s girlfriend, the luscious Jane (Priscilla Presley). There are some hilarious set pieces: A visit to a for-depressives-only bar called the Blue Note, which is decorated with photographs of famous disasters (along with the Titanic and the Hindenberg, there’s a smiling picture of Michael Dukakis); a wicked send-up of the pottery love scene from Ghost, featuring what must be the definitive body-double joke; and some spectacularly vulgar slapstick centering on Barbara Bush.
In a sense, the plot is just a frame, an excuse for random gags. Yet it’s also an essential element, since in scene after scene The Naked Gun 2 1/2 makes sport of the hidden absurdities of movie conventions — the clichés you didn’t even know were there. When Frank and Jane do an increasingly gymnastic cha-cha on the dance floor, what’s funny isn’t just the high-strung silliness of their movements but the way the joke tickles your pop-culture memory bank, evoking every dumb movie in which two people ever fell into a ”spontaneous” dance too elaborate for words. In some ways, the ZAZ style is the media-age equivalent of Marx Brothers lunacy. The difference is that the surrealism here isn’t derived from society but from inside our own heads — from minds that were molded by the flick of a channel selector.
In some ways, The Naked Gun 2 1/2 is the most predictable of the ZAZ films. Even the inconsistent Top Secret! (1984), a demented hybrid of Elvis movies and World War II espionage thrillers, had far wilder passages. Yet I’ll take lesser ZAZ over most of the competition any day. Their comedies don’t just get you laughing. They put you inside a new, cracked-mirror world — a world where no detail is too small for ridicule, and where Leslie Nielsen (bless him) can be a movie star. B+