Missing the target

Too often it’s too true to be funny

Published: Jan 09 2022, 01:01:am

Friday, June 30, 1991.
THE NAKED GUN 2½: THE SMELL OF FEAR. Co-written by Jerry Zucker and Pat Proft. Based on characters created by David Zucker for the 1982 TV series Police Squad!. Music by Ira Newborn. Co-written and directed by David Zucker. Running time: 85 minutes. Rated Mature with the B.C. Classifier's warning: "some suggestive language."
WHEN WE LAST SAW Los Angeles Police Lt. Frank Drebin, we were laughing.
    As played by the preternaturally straight Leslie Nielsen, he was the American Clouseau, a comic cop at large in a Mad Magazine universe. News that Drebin's creators were hard at work on a follow-up feature brought a smile of sweet remembrance to our lips.
    His return, alas, prompts less laughter. There are some chuckles, to be sure, but what I'll remember most about The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear is a feeling of disappointment.
    The new film combines a lack of comic focus with some too-obvious message mongering. It is as if director David Zucker and his collaborators (Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and Pat Proft) had forgotten the first rule of successful cinematic sequelization: Don't Panic.
    Stylistically, Abrahams and the Zucker brothers are Madmen. They made their reputation as laugh merchants with the gang-directed Airplane! (1980), a film that wholesaled humour, selling gags in job lots.
    Specialists in low-brow pop culture, they are inspired by bad movies and worse television. Most of all, though, they take as their model that avatar of American parody and satire, Mad Magazine (in its original 1950s comic book incarnation).
    From those vintage issues, they borrowed a cluttered, wall-to-wall approach to comedy, battering audiences into submission with sight, situation and dialogue gags. It worked brilliantly in Airplane!, fell somewhat flat in Top Secret! (1984), and succeeded again in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988).
    Everybody knows about Mad. But did you know that Mad's creators attempted to repeat their success with a sister magazine?
    First sent forth to newsstands in early 1954, Panic Magazine billed itself as "the only authorized imitation of Mad." It folded, a failure, after 12 issues.
    To Panic, then, is to produce an imitation of your own work that misses the essential spirit of the original. Which just about sums up The Smell of Fear.
    Parody, David Zucker's comic stock in trade, depends on filmgoers recognizing its target and delighting in the filmmaker's ability to inflate its excesses to the bursting point.
    The problem with Smell is that there is no generic template to support the lampoon. From a White House dinner full of energy-industry lobbyists to a conspiracy to suppress environmental reforms, the film's plot is often too true to be funny.
    Like those failed attempts to make light of arms merchandising, Deal of the Century (1983) and Best Defense (1984), Smell mistakes anger for comic invention.
    In his (I believe) genuine concern for ecological issues, Zucker loses touch with his  satirical muse.
    Perhaps to mollify Anglophile outrage at the indignities visited upon a Queen Elizabeth look-alike in the previous picture, there is some merciless [George H.W.] Bush bashing in the current feature. Like Drebin himself,
though, the film's overdone to the point where it becomes unfunny and even tedious.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1991. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: I wasn’t kidding when I suggested that Naked Gun co-creator David Zucker celebrates National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day. Though once a liberal activist (and campaign adviser to Democratic President Bill Clinton), in recent years the veteran comedy director has become politically conservative. In 2004, Zucker came out as a Republican, and voted for George W. Bush. He went so far as to shoot a television ad attacking opposing candidate John Kerry. Zucker’s last film as a director was 2008’s An American Carol, a satirical attack on liberal documentarist Michael Moore. It told the story of a slob filmmaker visited by the ghosts of Washingon, Patton and a radical right-wing judge after he bah-humbugs the Fourth of July. Despite enthusiastic support from Fox News (whose own Bill O’Reilly appeared as himself in the movie), it tanked at the boxoffice.
    Last November (2021), Zucker contributed an article to Commentary magazine in which he quite eloquently attacked so-called “cancel culture” (without ever once using the term). Currently, he is working with frequent collaborator Pat Proft on a screenplay for a comedy called The Star of Malta. Set in 1940s Hollywood, its satirical target is film noir.

See also: Today’s five-feature Law Enforcement Appreciation package includes director Abel Ferrera’s 1992 tale of guilt Bad Lieutenant; David Zucker’s 1991 farce The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear; Peter Segal’s 1994 comedy Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult; Sidney Lumet’s 1990 crime drama Q & A; and Jonathan Kaplan’s 1992 suspense thriller Unlawful Entry.