You have to wait until the last half hour of Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult-a climactic slapstick decimation of the Oscar ceremony- to get a taste of the brain-tickling comic highs that made Airplane! (1980) and The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) such classics of media-age lunacy. Among the Best Picture nominees: Sir Richard Attenborough’s latest life-of-the-saint special, a musical biography of Mother Teresa. As she prances around in the plummy-proletarian spirit of Carol Reed’s Oliver!, the splendor of the gag is that you can almost imagine Attenborough going this far. Meanwhile, Lieut. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) is working against the clock to prevent a terrorist bombing and, in the process, doing more damage than any terrorist could hope for. Sneaking on stage by posing as Phil Donahue, Drebin somersaults down the entrance stairway and bashes into his copresenter, Raquel Welch, so that she ends up deep-throating the microphone. Even when the gags aren’t great (I could have used fewer megapratfalls and more movie parodies), the sheer comic energy of the sequence keeps you giggling. As for the rest of the film, it’s okay-not as funny as The Naked Gun 21 2, cleverer and more consistent than Hot Shots! Part Deux. Yet Naked Gun 331 3 doesn’t really have what Airplane! or the first Naked Gun did: an insane satirical voraciousness, a sense that the whole damn world has been stuck in a comic Cuisinart. The truth is that the Airplane! style, in all its antic, hellzapoppin glory, has become rather predictable, like Mad magazine just when you’ve started to outgrow it. And no one seems to know this better than the style’s founding conceptual jokemeisters, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (who serve here as cowriters, producers, or executive producers). They’re no longer working with the same joyful, trip-wire anarchy that powered their earlier spoofs.
Before, ZAZ took the sophomoric impulse-I can make fun of this! And this! And THIS!!-to madcap surreal heights, parodying not just B-movie formulas but the whole panoply of movie cliches you didn’t even know were there; the jokes that popped out of the backgrounds had more zing than most comedies’ foregrounds. Naked Gun 331 3, on the other hand, has a sluggish, one-gag-at-a- time rhythm, and it aims at too many soft targets. Aside from the Oscar sequence, the movie’s big satirical coup is a send-up of prison-escape pictures (yawn).
Once again, Leslie Nielsen, that wondrous schlock artifact-turned-mock movie star, takes center stage as Drebin, the spectacularly literal-minded cop whose TV-bland surface is undercut by a klutziness so unconscious-yet so homicidally destructive-that it turns him into a walking cartoon id. When the first Naked Gun came out in 1988, the crinkly, white-haired Nielsen, his comic presence driven by the gap between his mellifulous he-man voice and the myopic idiocy of what he had to say, was like President Reagan’s goofball doppelganger. In Naked Gun 331 3, Drebin is now married to former sweetheart Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley), and the character’s sublime imbecility has itself become a little domesticated. He still mangles cliches amusingly ^ (”You’re whistling up the wrong end of the woods!”) and betrays his usual incongruous lustiness (”Frank, don’t you want to have a child?” ”Didn’t I try to adopt that 18-year-old Korean girl?”). Nielsen, though, doesn’t quite summon his old commanding twinkle.
I think the great ZAZ films can stand with the best of the Marx Brothers or early Woody Allen. It’s almost inevitable, though, that comic artists of this stature end up falling victim to their own success. By upping the ante on our collective sense of absurdity, they create the need for ever more unhinged comic styles. Right now, the gap is being filled by media-cool nihilists: David Letterman, Howard Stern, Beavis and Butt-head-voices that instantly deflate everything they touch (including themselves). In doing so, they’ve helped turn anarchic ridicule into the new national pastime. Is it any wonder that the barndoor-broad, satirical-potshot style of Naked Gun 331 3 seems quaintly out of date? After all, how relentlessly can you make fun of a culture that’s already beating you to the punch line? B