THAT’S NOT ROTTEN! ‘Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear’ Was the Last Great Spoof

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There was a time when the spoof film was more than just lazy pop culture references heaped upon one another. It may seem unthinkable to anyone raised in the era of Scary Movie and Friedberg and Seltzer. In a recent piece for the Dissolve, Nathan Rabin pinpoints Hot Shots! as the point of decline. If that’s true (and I have no inclination to argue against it), the last hurrah of the spoof genre came one month before the opening of Hot Shots! with the arrival of The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear.

David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker basically created the spoof genre. At first finding success adapting their live sketches for the movies with Kentucky Fried Movie, directed by John Landis, the trio was given their chance to write and direct their own film. That film, Airplane!, was a box office smash and birthed a new form of comedy. The trio then took their unique brand of style to network television, albeit for a very brief time. Debuting in 1982, Police Squad! introduced the world to Frank Drebin, Leslie Nielsen as a hapless, hard boiled policeman – part Joe Friday, part “Dirty” Harry Callahan, entirely incompetent. Having only 6 episodes produced, Police Squad! was cancelled after only 4 episodes aired. It has been reported that ABC president Tony Thomopoulos said the show was cancelled because people would have to pay attention to get all the jokes.

As happens with these things, Police Squad! amassed a cult following, and 6 years after its cancellation, Frank Drebin was back in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!. A smash hit, Naked Gun was the 8th highest grossing movie of 1988, just behind Die Hard. So, of course, there would be a sequel.

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Barbara Bush gags: as funny now as they were then.

Before Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker revived Frank Drebin, the trio had already started going their separate ways. The trio shared their final directing credit with 1986’s Ruthless People. And though all three contributed to the screenplay for Naked Gun, David Zucker was the sole director. Abrahams directed the Bette Midler film Big Business before helming Hot Shots!. Jerry Zucker found success directing dramas, most notably Ghost. For Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear, David Zucker would direct the script co-written with Pat Proft, creator of the Police Academy series and writer on a number of spoof of varying quality.

Whereas comedy sequels are usually an inferior product, placing all their efforts in putting characters into the exact same situation, Naked Gun 2½ has a unique advantage since nothing onscreen is beholden to things like logic or continuity. The secret for all of the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker films is the fact that all the actors play their roles straight. Like when Drebin explains the difficulties of carrying on an investigation, “It’s like having sex. It’s a painstaking and arduous task that seems to go on and on forever, and just when you think things are going your way, nothing happens.” Crazy things happen all around the characters but they rarely bat an eye, nobody winking at the camera. The background is populated with gags that aren’t given any extra attention, they’re just that – background. If a certain gag doesn’t make you laugh, give it a second because the next one will hit.

Like the best spoofs, Naked Gun 2½ isn’t a spoof a particular film, instead it’s a broad satire of cop show and movie clichés. Unlike Friedberg and Seltzer movies, who’ll base jokes around the already forgotten Johnny Depp iteration of Willy Wonka, Naked Gun 2½ rarely ventures into super-specific pop culture gags. The brief spoof of the love scene in Ghost is David Zucker needling his brother, not simply exploiting a reference for cheap laughs. Having Lloyd Bochner screaming, “It’s a cookbook,” as he did in the famous Twilight Zone episode, isn’t a gag based upon a brief cultural fad, but one of the most iconic moments of an iconic television program, and maybe lasts all of 30 seconds.

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Though it dabbles in topical political humor, Naked Gun 2½ stands out because of how relevant some of its political thought is to this day. President George H.W. Bush is about to implement a new energy policy for the nation, relying on the opinion of Dr. Albert S. Meinheimer (Richard Griffiths), who will advocate solar and wind. The vested special interest of nuclear, oil, and coal are planning to kidnap Dr. Meinheimer and replace him with a doppelganger. This environmentalist streak runs the risk of being dated, however, it now serves as a sad reminder to how little has changed in regards to domestic energy policy.

Like its predecessor, Naked Gun 2½ excels at balancing stunt casting and legitimate casting. Like the casting of Ricardo Montalban in the first film, casting Robert Goulet as the villain presents a bridge between the film’s inherent absurdity and the classical Hollywood of old. Reprising their roles from the first film are Priscilla Presley and O.J. Simpson, the Naked Gun films being O.J.’s last film roles before, well, you know. It makes for an interesting viewing experience watching Oscar winner George Kennedy bounce lines off of a retired football player/future felon. There are also cameos from Zsa Zsa Gabor, mocking an incident where she slapped a police officer, Mel Tormé, and, as with every Naked Gun Film, Weird Al Yankovic.

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Who is handsomer than Mel Tormé? Frank Drebin.

Also like its predecessor, The Naked Gun 2½ was a massive hit, the 10th highest grossing film of 1991. Its success was bittersweet, marking the end of an era. Jim Abrahams would find solo success with Hot Shots! and its sequel, but hasn’t directed another feature since 1998’s dreadful Jane Austen’s Mafia!. Despite the success of Ghost, Jerry Zucker hasn’t directed a feature since 2001’s Rat Race. Finally, there’s the curious case of David Zucker, who has continued working in the spoof genre with the awful, yet profitable, Scary Movie 3 and 4. But things took an odd turn when Zucker, formerly an environmentalist liberal, shifted his political beliefs towards conservatism and directed the right-wing spoof An American Carol. To paraphrase a bit from an episode of Seinfeld, I’m not offended by its politics, I’m offended because it’s not funny. It’s a spoof film where, and I’m not joking, Chris Farley’s brother plays a Michael Moore-type blowhard who is given the Christmas Carol treatment by the ghost of General Patton, played by Kelsey Grammer. It’s a political comedy that seems to have been written backwards, jokes written around ideological talking points.

There was another Naked Gun film, 33 1/3: The Final Insult. When compared to what constitutes a modern spoof, it’s a comedy gem; but when compared to its predecessors, it leaves a lot to be desired. Not all hope is lost in the spoof genre. The recent works of Phillip Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, 22 Jump Street) carry on the tradition of good spoof films, employing the clichés while satirizing them. Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz may actually the best spoof of all-time, if you consider it a spoof. On top of the witty dialogue and open commentary on contemporary action films, Wright uses the very style of those he’s satirizing, making cinematic form a part of the joke. These works are funny and vibrant, and likely to have a lasting shelf life like Airplane! or The Naked Gun. While not as great as its forefather, The Naked Gun 2½ is still a comedy riot. It’s only missing one thing: Rex Hamilton as Abraham Lincoln.

//

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