Those Leslie Nielsen Naked Gun movies did pretty well in their time — the 1988 original took in $78 million (an excellent gross for the Reagan era) and the last one, Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, earned $51 million domestic in ’94. But they’re old news and they’re over, for God’s sake. There’s no room for an old-dog comedy franchise in the Age of Obama. That’s what my attitude was, at least, until a Paramount employee slipped me a PDF copy of — prepare yourself — The Naked Gun: What 4? — The Rhythm of Evil.
Would such a property have worked a year or two after 9/11? Or two or three years ago? Maybe, maybe not. But right now people are so zombie-freaked by the destruction of their stock portfolios and retirement funds and the devaluation of their homes and their sharply-reduced ability to pay for their kids’ college tuitions that they’re probably ready to laugh at really dumb stuff again. Maybe. The key element, of course, is that is has to be seriously stupid. No fooling around, I mean.
What makes funny funny? There’s no explaining the how and why (and if you do you kill the joke), but I know it when I read it. And this script, penned by veteran sardonic-comedy guy Alan Spencer (Sledge Hammer, Hexed), made me laugh. It’s funny in a dry, smart, surreal-toxic sexual way. But then I’m from Mars so what do I know?
On top of which the films that I direct in my head when I’m reading stuff like this are always underplayed in an Ingmar Bergman-esque way, and the tendency of many (if not most) professional comedy directors is to broaden and underline so the least sophisticated dolts in Mumbai will get the joke. But the best stupid comedies are never aimed low — they’re written and directed by smart guys, and played as straight as Hamlet and aimed at jazz musicians and corporate CEOs and people who donate foundation money. Because once you start winking at the audience, you’re dead.
The three lead cop characters in Naked Gun: What 4? are Det. Vince Conklin (“Look, I represent the new America, the average person on the street desperate for change… like pennies, nickles, dimes”), Police Commissioner Roy McGlade (flip, blunt, crusty but benign) and Lt. Erica Litvak (30s, no-nonsense, a looker). Nielsen’s Lt. Frank Drebin has been put out to pasture, of course — living in Florida, golfing — so it’s wide open for whatever.
All I know is that “it’s ugly out there….like a boil on the buttock of a Sumo wrestler suffering from excema.” That’s a throwaway line from page four, delivered by a minor character.