NIELSEN RATING

Suppose you were to travel backward in time to, say, 20 years ago. You start telling the people you meet about life in the 90s: The Berlin Wall is gone, the Soviet empire is in ruins, Virginia is the first state to have elected an African-American governor, and a Democratic former governor of Arkansas who avoided going to Vietnam, and who admits that at least once in his life he had a joint in his hand, has been elected president.

Up to this point, your listeners are not incredulous. But then you mention that one of the biggest, most commercially reliable comedy stars in American movies is . . . Leslie Nielsen. That's where you'd get the double take.

Who would have believed, in the early 70s, that a sense of humor would have been discovered in this dull, 50s leading man, who had worked opposite Debbie Reynolds in Tammy and the Bachelor and opposite the Monster From the Id in Forbidden Planet, and who had then graduated to straight-arrow authority-figure parts, and to narrating industrial films?

Well, the Monster From the Id won out, and Nielsen can never narrate another industrial, except perhaps for a whoopee-cushion factory. He, along with other general-purpose actors of his ilk, was allowed to make fun of himself in the 1980 disaster-movie spoof Airplane!, and then in a TV spoof called Police Squad. The TV show flopped, but spawned the Naked Gun films, a series of features which made Nielsen, for the first time in his long career, a real star. The third of these, aptly titled Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, is now upon us.

Nielsen plays Lieutenant Frank Drebin, a sort of American Inspector Clouseau--a two-fisted cop who continually, and usually obliviously, wreaks havoc on his surroundings, and who speaks grand absurdities in his stentorian deadpan. "I like my sex the way I like my basketball. One on one, and with a minimum of dribbling," is about as close as his dialogue gets to Noel Coward. The films are now written and directed mainly by a second-string team of hacks, but are still under the aegis of Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, the co-directors of Airplane!.

In general, I think that these guys have had a detrimental effect on American movie comedy. Their much-imitated joke-bombardment approach--giving us six gags a minute in the hope that at least one will connect--has helped to debase our idea of parody. But if I said I sat through The Final Insult without laughing, I'd be lying.

One can feel a certain amount of fondness and sympathy toward co-stars George Kennedy, Priscilla Presley, and even poor O.J. Simpson, and still realize that whatever watchability the film has comes from that splendid, unleashed reprobate Nielsen. He's got the spirit of a true cutup, and it's somehow exhilarating to witness his glee at being liberated from stodginess, and at the extremely lucrative scam he's got going for himself. The "plot" puts Frank through Edmond O'Brien's paces in White Heat, with pot shots along the way at The Bodyguard, Thelma & Louise, Jurassic Park, The Crying Game, and, best of all, Brian DePalma's The Untouchables. Many of the gags aren't funny, some because they're sexist or otherwise tasteless, some just because they're labored and poorly timed and dumb. But some are truly funny, and Nielsen is human enough company to get one through the dead stretches.

Fred Ward plays the crazed bomber who Frank's after this time, the voluptuous model Anna Nicole Smith (who can also be glimpsed in The Hudsucker Proxy) plays the Virginia Mayo part, and Kathleen Freeman plays Ward's wicked mother. They're all competent stooges for Nielsen, but the only other really outstanding bit of performing in what, if all involved are wise, really will be the final Naked Gun film, is by Pia Zadora, as herself. She pops up near the end of the film and sings a production number in her potent, newfound lounge-act belt. Zadora can no longer be considered a joke, while Nielsen can no longer be considered anything but.

 
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