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by Mike McGranaghan

Wrongfully Accused uses a style of comedy that hasn't been funny in years. It's the latest entry in the Airplane/Naked Gun genre that's based on self-referential parody, sight gags, and ironic uses of dialogue. It's a kind of comedy that was brilliantly funny at first, but now filmmakers seem to think that it's easy to do; in fact, it's one of the most difficult forms of comedy to pull off, requiring lightning-fast jokes and an intelligent perspective. Wrongfully Accused - like the recent BASEketball - uses the form to make a quintessentially dumb comedy, which proves to be a woeful mistake.

The star is Leslie Neilsen, who has become the leader of the genre. In this parody of The Fugitive, he portrays Ryan Harrison, the self-proclaimed "Lord of the Violin" who is framed for the murder of a millionaire. The murder was actually committed by a one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed man who no one believes exists. (If you doubt how clever this movie thinks it is, consider that Harrison Ford played Jack Ryan in two movies and also starred in The Fugitive - hence the character's name here).

Taking the role of the U.S. Marshal is Richard Crenna (the comparable role in The Fugitive was, of course, played by Tommy Lee Jones). How they settled on this actor, I have no clue. When was the last time you saw a major studio release whose second-biggest name star was Richard Crenna? His job is to dissect everything into miniscule detail, satirizing Jones's famous "outhouse, doghouse, henhouse" speech, but he's not funny doing it.

Although it is a comedy, Wrongfully Accused only made me laugh once or twice. At one point, Neilsen has this exchange with his mistress:

"You're dog certainly has a surprised look on his face."
"That's because you're looking at his butt."
"Then he's certainly not going to enjoy that treat that I just fed to him."

I'm afraid that's about the high-water mark of humor in this film. It suffers the same problems that BASEketball did. First, this kind of humor has to be played absolutely straight. Neilsen (who mastered the necessary deadpan style in both Airplane! and The Naked Gun) plays this role with a wink to the audience, as if he's saying, "See how funny I am?" It ruins the structure of the comedy, rendering it mostly laughless. Second, the audience has grown to anticipate the payoffs. If one character says something figuratively, you know another character will take it literally. So many films have been made in this style that it's now easy to see the gags coming a mile away.

A bigger problem is that writer-director Pat Proft (who helped invent this style of comedy) believes it is enough to make constant references to other movies in lieu of actual jokes. Wrongfully Accused sends up several dozen films in just 84 minutes. After a while, it looks like the movie is showboating: Look, now we're Anaconda! Now we're The Usual Suspects! Now we're Titanic! The constant movie references didn't make me laugh, they made me want to see other movies. Better movies.

The more lame comedies I see this year, the more convinced I become that There's Something About Mary is a genuine comic masterpiece. If you want to laugh - and laugh hard - that's the one to see. Wrongfully Accused, on the other hand, is painfully un-funny.

( 1/2 out of four)

Wrongfully Accused is rated PG-13 for comedic innuendo. The running time is 1 hour and 24 minutes.

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