Airplane! Movie Review

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If Airplane! isn't the funniest English-language movie ever made, it could at least get into some spirited comedy fisticuffs with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, A Fish Called Wanda, or Wayne's World for the title. It might win, too. The first non-sketch film from the team of Zucker (David), Abrahams, and Zucker (Jerry) established the joke-a-minute-spoof subgenre, frequented by various iterations of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team (not to mention several imitators); this means it gets credit for The Naked Gun, but also the blame for Scary Movie 2.

But Airplane! doesn't reign just by calling firsties. Or rather, it does - because it hit the bull's eye so dead-center that there wasn't much room left for other arrows. It purportedly spoofs the airplane-based disaster movies so popular at the time of its 1980 release, but much of the main plot (a scarred war pilot must attempt to land a passenger jet during a storm when the crew falls ill) and even some specific scene are lifted from the little-known 1957 B-movie Zero Hour (unseen by me); it simultaneously satirizes one particularly obscure film, '70s disaster films, and every bad B-movie you've ever seen.

Other movies with a similar style predate this one; Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run, and the Mel Brooks genre spoofs like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles come to mind. But Airplane! takes the high-volume-joke approach to wholesale levels; there is simply no dopey gag ("and stop calling me Shirley") nor shtick (puns, slapstick, casual surrealism) unturned, and no more than a few seconds between unturnings.

The Zuckers and Abrahams also managed to recruit the perfect movie-spoofing cast, whereas the '70s Mel Brooks movies, good as they are, tend to rely on familiar comic faces. Airplane!, in contrast, contains very little mugging. Leslie Nielsen, hilarious as he is in the Naked Gun series, has never been so bone-dry in the second-act comedy career this film launched; Lloyd Bridges, likewise, is amusing in the Hot Shots! movies but completes a perfect slow burn into insanity here (the "wrong day to quit smoking" becomes the "wrong day to quiet amphetamines"). The whole team plays even the most outlandish gags, such as the repeated suicide attempts during Ted Striker's (Robert Hays) backstory monologues, perfectly straight.

The result is a film that's not just funny but completely funny, ridiculously funny, unrelentingly funny; a comedy that, while inconsequential in many ways, is just about impossible to improve upon. This may be the Zuckers' strangest, most lasting joke of all.

The new DVD of the film is a real treasure, featuring a version of the film that jumps to outtakes, deleted scenes, and copious interviews with nearly everyone involved in the film, down to the most minor characters. All manner of trivia is revealed -- David Letterman was tested for the lead role -- and seeing the principals again 25 years later is truly eye-opening. There's also a standard commentary track with the directors and a trivia track.

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Airplane! Rating

" Essential "

Rating: PG, 1980

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