' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Naked Gun 2 ½ (1991)

Friday, July 15, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Naked Gun 2 ½ (1991)

There is a moment in “The Naked Gun 2 ½” when Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) has come to a blues bar, with decorative portraits of Michael Dukakis, to have a drink. “Gimme the strongest thing you got,” Drebin tells his waiter. A muscular gentleman straight from Golds Gym arrives. “On second thought,” reckons Drebin, startled, “I’ll have a White Russian.” The waiter pauses, looks directly into the camera and shakes his head “nah.” That was always the difference with Lt. Drebin, that staunch refusal to break the fourth wall. Later, he enters his police precinct and humorously inadvertently breaks up a hostage situation. He doesn’t even know he’s done it. When his Captain, Ed Hocken (George Kennedy), congratulates him on a job well done, Drebin looks all around, even up in the air, dumbfounded, as if someone might have written the reason for the buffoonery in the sky. Drebin was never smarter than the movie he was in; he was in the movie he was in and just trying to keep up with the nonsensical world around him.

Watching a cinematic offering like “The Naked Gun 2 ½” is an exercise in trying to keep up too. It’s a conveyer belt of jokes and gags, ceaselessly coming at you, so if you see something like “give me the strongest thing you got” and it doesn’t quite land, something else will a few moments later, like Drebin’s admission that he inadvertently displaced an entire Amazonian tribe. It’s the law of ZAZ averages. ZAZ, of course, refers to Team ZAZ – that is, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, the filmmaking trio responsible for “Airplane!”, “Top Secret!”, “The Naked Gun” and the TV series “Police Squad!”, upon which “The Naked Gun” was based. When it came time to make “The Naked Gun” sequel, inevitable after the original’s impressive $78 million haul, however, it only came bearing one Z – David, that is, marking the follow-up as “un film de David Zucker.”

I think about this because David Zucker is a noted environmentalist. And I think about how “The Naked Gun 2 ½” was released in the summer of 1991, only a few months after the conclusion of the first Gulf War, which was more complicated than “It Was About Oil”, but seriously……it was about oil. And so Zucker rooted his laugh-out-loud spoof to something genuinely political in the form of energy policy. The principal villain is Big Oil, in the form of a ghoulish Robert Goulet as ghoulish Quentin Hapsburg, who furrows his brow at all the inanity pitched toward him by Nielsen with comic intensity, as if he’s always in the midst of trying to piece together what’s just been said, not being able to do it, and then giving up. Hapsburg and his coal, oil and nuclear industry cronies will stop at nothing to prevent Dr. Albert Meinheimer (Richard Griffiths) from pitching Bush I on a platform of renewable energy. This is traditionally where the interwebs’ aggrieved swoop in to harangue about broaching politics in a movie where O.J. Simpson’s groinal region is impaled by a cactus. But then, I’m not inserting politics into the equation because the movie itself already has.

Summer tentpole movies have increasingly turned serious, attempting to graft on solemn messages, often with parallels to real world issues. In and of itself this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but these attempts at commentary more often than not transform what should be brisk entertainments into slogs. “The Naked Gun 2 ½”, on the other hand, builds a pro-clean energy message into a brisk entertainment, never putting the moral above the laughs. If anything, the moral becomes more profound because of the laughs.

Here, the world is an inherently farcical place, where security guards ogle the clock connected to a few sticks of dynamite about to blow them sky high and Hapsburg almost, but can’t quite, figure out the quartet he so desperately wants to topple are standing right in front of him in ludicrous disguises. This world, in a way, is no different from our world right now, or any other world of any other time, an illogical place that we can’t grasp. “Is it just me,” Drebin asks Ed at the blues bar, “or has the whole world gone crazy?” “It’s just a small percentage of the population,” says Ed. Then Ed notices their waiter is pantsless. It’s a pretty stupid joke, really, though Kennedy’s reaction, looking away not so much in horror as sheer befuddlement is priceless. This is what they’re up against! The whole world is crazy!

Frank Drebin might be a little pompous, a little self-impressed a la Inspector Closeau, but he’s still a man insists on taking world at face value, which is repeatedly evinced in the form of Zucker’s classic ambiguous syntax. For all the film’s funny stuff, there really is nothing more humorous than Drebin failing to grasp exactly what he and someone else are discussing. “The Naked Gun 2 ½” builds a different world than most modern comedies, where characters are so often desperate to let you know they are above the humor. Frank Drebin is not above the humor because he doesn’t even realize it is humor. This is the world he inhabits, and crazy as it is, he is trying his ridiculously dogged best to protect it.

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