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SEND UP THE CLOWNS

You'll never take Lieutenant Frank Drebin, the bumbling flatfoot of the Naked Gun movies, for one of the major thinkers of the twentieth century. Combining the cold solemnity of Joe Friday with the ineptitude of Inspector Clouseau, he scatters dumb non sequiturs like confetti in the streets of Los Angeles, piles his squad car into parking meters and disrupts law and order with the heedlessness of a drunken frat boy.

But let's not shortchange the good lieutenant, okay? Deep down (well, not that deep down), he's more subversive than silly: Amid their broad buffoonery, these movies savage the empty-headed vanities of the "entertainment industry" and the American obsession with celebrity as deftly as do Nathanael West or Robert Altman.

Leslie Nielsen, an obscure Canadian actor who, with his saggy face and lumpy gray suit, looks more like a weary small-town mayor than a leading man, scratched out a living for years in the lower depths of TV and movies. Then, in 1982, he was cast as Frank Drebin in a doomed comedy series called Police Squad! Dismissed by audiences more interested in the heroic fantasies of Miami Vice and the pseudodocumentary "reality" of Hill Street Blues than station-house slapstick, the show quickly fell on its butt. But its creator, David Zucker, who'd cleverly parodied disaster movies in the box-office hit Airplane, convinced the studio money men that weekly TV was not Frank Drebin's proper bailiwick. Zucker was right. On the big screen, Frank Drebin's blissful ignorance attracted a sharper, more attentive crowd, which saw not only his pratfalls and bewildered looks but picked up on Zucker's and Nielsen's ulterior motives.

Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult is the third (and, we trust, not the final) Frank Drebin farce, and it neatly reiterates the glories of its predecessors while breaking some new ground. The script, written by Zucker (who's ceded directing chores this time to one Peter Segal), Pat Proft and Robert LoCash, is an amalgam of sperm-clinic jokes (the failures of Frank's sex life are more public than ever), flashbacks to the discotheque era and minispoofs of movies from The Untouchables to The Great Escape to Thelma & Louise, spiked with topical references to Tonyagate and Beavis and Butt-head. The nonsensical plot, featuring Fred Ward, of all people, as an international terrorist, forces Drebin out of his retirement as a fudge-baking househusband wearing fluffy pink slippers into some undercover penitentiary work that eventually leads him to reduce the Academy Awards presentations to a shambles. Don't worry too much about what begets what.

Nielsen enacts the whole travesty with his usual deadpan earnestness, and he's hilarious. "You're whistling up the wrong neck of the woods," he announces, tough-guy style, just before devouring a bowl of shredded documents as if they were spaghetti. Even in his rental-car commercials, Nielsen's a master of the sight gag, the double-take and the blind dash into disaster.

But once again, it's Nielsen's brilliantly chosen supporting cast, if it can be called that, that really does the trick here. This is a mass culture that can elect dimbulb movie actors president, turn witless talk-show hosts into holy oracles and acclaim publicity-hound real estate salesmen like Donald Trump as major icons. What Zucker does is sprinkle in enough cheesy Hollywood celebs and third-tier tabloid "personalities" that the Naked Gun movies not only look like the Jerry Lewis telethon but deflate the whole notion of public adulation.

Consider. O.J. Simpson, an ex-football star who rarely gets a complete sentence out of his mouth, returns as Drebin's lame-brained partner, Nordberg. When he catches a baby catapulted from its carriage in a train station, he can barely stop himself from spiking the kid onto the granite floor. Priscilla Presley, a nonentity whose entire career is based on her dead husband's fame, is back as Dreben's hectoring wife. Professional letter-turner Vanna White has a cameo, which speaks for itself, and Playboy centerfold Anna Nicole Smith (who shows no evidence of acting lessons) is perfectly cast as the obligatory dumb blond. Proto-bimbo Raquel Welch, who reached her zenith in the dramatic arts with Kansas City Bomber, is clearly still self-absorbed and still poured into silver lame, so Zucker dumps her ass-first into the orchestra pit.

There's more: Dimly remembered Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton, that saccharine Gidget of the pre-Kerrigan epoch, is brought up from the vault to handspring her way through the crowd--en route to winning the Best Actress Oscar. And, in a terrific lampoon of every club-footed production number the "Academy" has ever inflicted on you, top-hatted Frank Drebin snatches the wig right off the skull of the ultimate no-talent celeb, faded Vegas kitten Pia Zadora. Then he slings her into the wings, where she belongs.

The entire Oscar night setpiece, 33 1/3's highlight, is, of course, a brisk sendup of the ludicrous finale of The Bodyguard, in which cigar-store Indian Kevin Costner saves nonactress Whitney Houston from assassins. Thank goodness Zucker and company are around to put such nonsense in its place, and to lay bare the sundry delusions of show folk given far more credit than they're due.

Long live Lieutenant Frank Drebin. He's one fool who keeps revealing the nasty folly of things. At bottom, that ain't spoof, and that ain't slapstick.

 
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