Monday, September 19, 2011

Airplane! - 1980

"Airplane!" - 1980
Dir. by Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker - 1 hr. 28 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It's so unbelievably rare that a comedy ages well.  There are a million reasons for that: topical humor, changing humor tastes and trends (have you tried watching one of Jim Carrey's 90's comedies recently?), targets that lose relevance, etc.  "Airplane!" doesn't entirely dodge all of those pitfalls, but it pioneered a particular style of comedy that no one has managed to do quite as well (it's hard to imagine any of the Wayans brothers movie spoofs in a universe without this film).

The script is heavily based on 50's movie ("Zero Hour!"), and it centers around the pilots and passengers of a commercial flight getting food poisoning from the in-flight meal.  Only one man on the flight can fly a plane AND didn't have fish for dinner, Ted Striker (Robert Hays).  But he's still hung up on a mission gone wrong during the war (time-wise, which would have occurred in the mid 70's - part of the humor of the movie), and hasn't flown since.  Like many good comedies, the plot serves somewhat as an excuse to keep things moving along, and provide new backdrops for gags.  And there are so many gags in this movie!  It's the movie equivalent of Will Elder's "chicken fat" drawing style from Mad Magazine - jokes layered on top of jokes on top of jokes.  It's a relentless parade of gags for an hour and a half, and the jokes don't even end when the credits roll.

It's really difficult to get into why something like this works.  Part of it is the relentless pacing, which helps when a gag falls flat (and some of the humor is dated).  But for every bit that doesn't work now, there's a steady flow of absolute classic bits.  For the most part, the actors play things deadly serious, even when something absurd happens right in front of them.  I think that it's that level of stone-faced commitment that elevates the material (witness Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, or Peter Graves here).  And while most of the gags fly by, there are a couple of continuing gags that run through the course of the movie.  The first, an abandoned taxi-cab passenger waiting for Ted to return (while the meter runs, of course), the other is how characters who arrive at the airport handle the religious glad-handers (as it turns out, Stack's Rex Kramer is a martial arts practitioner).  Those gags, stretched out over the course of the movie, help keep "Airplane!" from coming off as a slightly more focused version of ZAZ's scattershot (yet also very funny) earlier movie, "Kentucky Fried Movie."  It's a small step in the direction of storytelling, but an important one.

For all the things that come off as anachronistic (religious zealots harassing people at the airport (!), a "Saturday Night Fever" spoof sequence, suicide as a running joke), it's just a classic comedy.  Thirty-plus years out, and it's still one of the funniest movies that I've ever seen.  It launched Leslie Nielsen's comedy career (during a college anthropology class, I remember sitting through a National Geographic film he narrated probably in the 70's, waiting for the gags to kick in), which is worth something on it's own.  I don't necessarily think it's the greatest comedy ever, but it's on the short list.

4 / 5 - NF Streaming

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