Thursday, June 26, 2014

Classic Movie Review: Airplane!

It’s been many years since I watched Airplane, that crazy comedy film from the ZAZ team of Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker. They mastered the art of goofball parody comedy and made my youth more enjoyable than it otherwise would have been. Airplane was the one that started it all. It’s possible to point to John Landis and Kentucky Fried Movie, but that’s more akin to sketch comedy – a bunch of funny ideas loosely tossed together around a larger centerpiece parody of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. But as an outright genre parody, Airplane set the bar, a bar that unfortunately has been lowered as the years have gone on.

To a modern audience I don’t imagine the parody element will make much sense, but it doesn’t matter because the ZAZ team use the conventions of the disaster movie genre (popular through the 1970s) as the skeleton on which to hang some hilarious lines, situations, sight gags, and comments. Anyone familiar with The Towering Inferno, Airport, or The Poseidon Adventure will recognize the reluctant hero Ted Stryker (Robert Hays) with a haunting past; the failed romance with Elaine (Julie Hagerty) that will be rekindled through adversity; the team of off-site experts (Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack leading) trying to solve the crisis; the sick little girl; the token minorities; and the very serious and dramatic dialogue that’s painted in broad generic strokes such as, “They’ve got only one chance” and “Hold it together!”

Sure, most of the jokes are juvenile, and more than thirty years later, knowing most of the movie by heart, it’s a little thin. There were some subtleties I never caught when I used to watch the movie as a kid, so there were some mildly fresh amusements this time. What makes it continue to work, however, is the casting of predominantly dramatic actors to deliver turgid dialogue, dumb jokes, and react with deadpan steadfastness to the absurdities around them. Bridges gets the most obvious and clunky laughs out of a running gag related to various drug habits he’s trying to kick. Stack is perfect, delivering the dialogue of the expert tactician without ever winking. Try pulling off a gag where you dramatically remove your sunglasses only to reveal another pair beneath. Then a couple beats later he has to do the same move with the underlying pair. And to deliver the line, “Get that finger out of your ear. You don’t know where that finger’s been,” without smirking is remarkable. Stack’s technique as a comedic actor is entirely dependent on his being a skilled dramatic actor.

But none is more adept than the great Leslie Neilsen, who was plucked from the obscurity of B-list roles in lesser-known movies to have a career renaissance as the comedic lead in ZAZ-inspired comedies for the next thirty years. As the doctor on the doomed flight he has to deliver now-famous clownish lines like, “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.” Every line he speaks teems with hilarity precisely because he delivers them as if he has no idea he’s in a comedy. It’s like he stepped on set from another movie, but that’s why it works so well. Those three supporting players, as well as Peter Graves as the pilot, give the film texture. Long after you’ve seen it, the bits you’re likely to remember involve them and not the two leads, Hays and Hagerty, who have the most thankless roles.

There are other great bits involving a cameo by L.A. Lakers legend Kareem Abdul Jabar, playing the co-pilot whose true identity is outed by a boy visiting the cockpit. Also, the only two black characters speak ‘jive’ to one another. It’s a gibberish conglomeration of nonsense that calls attention to the distinctive speech patterns and vocabulary of black Americans. Their subtitled dialogue is hilarious enough for the way it actually sounds so convincing, but the icing on the cake comes when a middle-aged white woman steps in to translate the jive talk for a stewardess.

Airplane remains somewhat timeless because the jokes don’t depend on topical references. The genre satire is present, but as background. Not recognizing or getting it is unlikely to diminish your enjoyment of the richness of the comedy. This stands in contrast to just about every parody released in the last twenty years where every bit demands your familiarity with contemporary pop culture and specific movies of that era. Scary Movie is not a genre parody but a parody of the Scream franchise. The staying power of Airplane is directly related to its universal appeal that doesn’t depend on specialized knowledge. It should still be hilarious for teens, and also a great little bit of nostalgia for the rest of us. Somewhere out there is an in-the-know thirteen-year old showing this movie to his friends. In twenty years they will still be quoting and referencing it.

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