Monday, January 25, 2010

Comedy at 100 Miles Per Hour

Film: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

In the 1980s, there was no more powerful comedy team than that of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker. The team entered the 80s with Airplane! and wrapped up the decade with The Naked Gun, making the Police Squad television show and the cult comedy Top Secret! in between. While it’s difficult to argue with the success on all levels of Airplane!, there’s a lot to be said for the trio’s first cop comedy.

The Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker style of comedy is to throw every conceivable idea possible that might possibly cause one single person in the world to laugh and add it to the film somewhere. A minute of film that doesn’t include at least four one-liners, a couple of sight gags, some slapstick and a bad pun or two is, in their world, a minute wasted. Any possible miscommunication is exploited for every possibility, anything that could call for a stupid joke is included.

That’s really the joy of this model of film is that even though some of the jokes might not work, and in fact many of them will not work for everyone, there are so many jokes throughout the film that plenty of the jokes will work, and often work more than once, even when you can see it coming a mile away.

The plot follows a bumbling police lieutenant named Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) as he tries to clear the name of his partner, Nordberg (O.J. Simpson before he got all weird and murdery) and prevent a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth. Along the way, he is assisted by his friend Ed Hocken (George Kennedy), has a torrid affair with Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley), the secretary of the film’s bad guy, Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban).

But with a movie like this, there’s no real concern about plot. Plot is secondary to throwing as much potential comedy on the screen as possible. For instance, in a montage of Frank’s and Jane’s first day together , the following happens. They run on the beach, Frank gets clobbered with a giant beach ball, Frank swirls a giant mass of cotton candy on his hand, the pair get matching tattoos, they squirt each other with condiments at a hot dog stand, ride bucking broncos, run on the beach again, sail a pirate schooner, come laughing out of a screening of Platoon, and run on the beach again, clotheslining another couple. Following this rapid montage, Jane says, “I had a wonderful day.” This loses a lot in the telling, because it’s a ridiculous scene, and it works completely.

The real selling point here is that it never stops. It’s not a film that translates well to being described, because so much of the comedy here is visual. Even the great lines like “sexual assault with a concrete dildo” don’t work nearly as well written down as they do in the film. This is a film that cannot be described but must be seen to be understood and believed. Films like this one have been copied plenty of times since, often by Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker themselves, but never again equaled. In fact, only their previous Airplane! can even come close to this level of insanity.

Aside from the comedy, the big selling point here is the exquisite cast. Leslie Nielsen has made a career for years playing essentially a sighted Mr. Magoo, completely oblivious to anything going on around him and always deadpan, a skill never better demonstrated than here. George Kennedy, an Oscar-winning actor, is equally braindead and goofy throughout. The real joy here, though, is Ricardo Montalban, who is far funnier in the role by playing it straight than he would be by playing it for comedy.

Only other Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker films come anywhere close to this. In the film’s 84-minute running time, there are at least 1,000 attempts to make you laugh. If you don’t laugh or at least smile at a quarter of them, have someone check you for a pulse.

Why to watch The Naked Gun: Few other films approach this level of constant funny.
Why not to watch: You’ve passed out from laughing too hard.

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