“What’s slower than a speeding bullet, and able to hit tall buildings at a single bound?”
Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Cast: Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen
Synopsis: When the pilot and crew of an aircraft falls prey to food poisoning it falls to an ex-pilot with a fear of flying to guide the plane to safety.
It’s easy to overlook just what a sensation Airplane! was back in 1980. I remember seeing it at a cinema in the midst of all the hype and praise and feeling a little let-down by the quality of the jokes. I still think many of the jokes aren’t that great, but the passing of time seems to have lent them a nostalgic boost that makes them seem funnier than they really are – or ever were. That’s not to say Airplane! isn’t an enjoyable comedy, though. In fact, it’s very funny at times and is refreshingly free of Hollywood’s belief today that comedy has to be gross to raise a laugh.
It’s based on Zero Hour!, a straightforward 1950s drama which really does contains such lines as “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking,” and “Our survival hinges on one thing – finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.” That movie was co-written by Arthur Hailey, the author of Airport, another airline movie which provided plenty of material for Airplane’s screenwriting team of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker. The cast mostly plays it straight, never reacting to the absurdity of the situations, which is where much of the humour works. A lot of people know Leslie Nielsen only as the madcap star of movies like this and The Naked Gun series, but back when he was cast in Airplane! he was primarily known as a serious actor, as were the likes of Peter Graves, Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be awarded to Airplane! is that it never grows tiresome or outstays its welcome. Many saturation comedies that followed in its wake had a hit ratio of maybe one-in-five funny jokes to clunkers, whereas with Airplane! it’s probably one-in-three. The movie is a victim of its own success, spawning a plethora of inferior rip-offs which recycled this movie’s jokes over and over until over-familiarity inevitably diluted the impact of Airplane’s biggest laughs.
(Reviewed 26th December 2014)