At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Airplane! “80”

MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Parody Comedy/ Stars:  Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Lorna Patterson, Stephen Stucker, Frank Ashmore, Jonathan Banks, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Barbara Billingsley, Lee Bryant, Nicholas Pryor, Joyce Bulifant, Maureen McGovern, Kenneth Tobey, Barbara Stuart, Rossie Harris, Jason Wingreen, Jill Whelan, Ethel Merman, and Otto as himself/ Runtime: 87 minutes

I feel it must be said that if there was ever a masterclass in how to make fun of not only everything that has even the faintest relation to either air travel or the world of movies in the late 70’s, early 80’s, and to some extent even before that then Airplane most assuredly is the how-to book on how to do it perfectly. Indeed this is a film which is focused on one thing and one thing only: the laughs it intends to produce for us. Indeed the plot here is so focused and simplistic that it pretty much threatens to evaporate before our eyes especially when placed after the cavalcade of comedy that always takes over instead. Thus I think it is quite safe to say that this movie is a complete and utter riot that manages to stuff itself with so much to work with that a lot of other things, the narrative among them, literally find themselves lost in the scuffle. Indeed whereas the majority of films in the comedy genre usually, as a rule, work best when structured with a clearly defined foundation, Airplane is honestly one of the few films that I can recall that laughs in the face of that time-honored rule and even, to an extent, renders it a moot point. Indeed this truly is a comedic film that is able to successfully focus just as much on what is going on in the background of scenes as well as what the movie is actually about; a feat that, to the majority of films would render it D.O.A., but in this one serves as the foundation for a film that is truly one of the finest comedies ever made.

The plot is as follows: Airplane tells the riveting story of a man by the name of Ted Striker. Striker, we quickly learn, is a conflicted former Air Force pilot who is stricken with both a severe drinking problem, but also a high degree of PTSD. A degree that, it is worth mentioning, has all but nullified his skill or desire to ever fly a plane again….or take on any kind of responsibility if his girlfriend is to be believed. Speaking of….as if this guy didn’t have enough to deal with, we also learn that his relationship with the love of his life named Elaine is pretty much on the edge of disaster. As the film opens, Elaine is heading to work on board a flight that night as a flight attendant, and Ted attempts to catch up with her before the plane leaves thus taking her away from his life permanently. Astonishingly, despite his own trauma, and a smorgasbord of airport distractions, Ted is able to get a ticket and board the plane right on time. Yet despite the promise of a smooth and relaxing, their personal issues aside, flight, it isn’t long before disaster strikes in the forms of not only bad weather, but also about half the passengers, and the people inside the cockpit, all getting a severe case of poisoning courtesy of Thanos tainting the fish dinners on the plane. Suffice it to say then that this flight seems completely and irrevocably screwed. That is unless there just happens to be SOMEONE on board who MIGHT be able to fly this plane, and no I don’t mean the creepy auto-pilot with a mind of his own (nice guess though.)  Thus, despite a severe set of reservations, will Ted be able to overcome the trauma from his past, get things back on track with the love of his life, AND get the passengers safely to their destination?  Surely we hope so for one of the people on board, a doctor by the name of Rumack, Elaine, the people at ground control including Ted’s old flight commander, and of course all of the rest of the passengers on the plane are all depending on him….. (dun dun dun!!!!)

Now I must say that it is absolutely incredible just how this film manages to hit the bulls-eye every time with every single joke, gag, quip, etc. that if offers up the audience. Indeed be it the corny as Kansas on the 4th of July romantic music that comes on every single time there is a moment that feels like a love scene or just someone looking at someone else in a loving way or the poking at literally anyone and everyone from those religious people who don’t know how to leave people alone at the airport, a white woman who can “speak jive” (a fact made even funnier when you realize that the woman played Beaver’s Mom on the classic show Leave It to Beaver), a truly odd quarrel in a bar between, of all things, a pair of tough-looking Girl Scouts (I mean I knew things got rough and tumble in those troops come cookie selling time, but this is ridiculous), or a plane ticket for a seat in the smoking section that is actually smoking, there really isn’t a moment in this film where not only do you feel bored out of your mind, but that also doesn’t sync up completely with the goofy atmosphere or style overall of the full movie. Indeed even in the moments where this film chooses to give its attention maybe a little bit longer than it should on a totally unnecessary character, it does with the best comedic intentions possible. For example the sick little girl on the plane might not really have any part to play in the overarching narrative, but what she and the other characters, circumstances, and occurrences like her manage to pull off is they give the creative minds behind this film more a chance to showcase a more complete picture of all the comedic wackiness and madness that help make this film the brilliance that it is.

Yet it isn’t just what is seen that manages to be so funny, it is also what is said by this talented cast as well. Indeed the verbal comedy in this film not only manages to mesh together perfectly with all of the sight gags, but also manages to enhance the quality of the film overall. Indeed there really truly is not a cruddy joke in this entirely film, but that also can be attributed to the fact that every single joke is both simple to get and also rooted in some kind of reality. Indeed it really is quite obvious that this film was written by individuals who had a degree of relatable experience with just how weird and absurd air travel truly could get at that time. Indeed imagine if you will if this movie was even given the green light to be made today and with all of the modern complications that air travel has now brought into the comedic fold….all I can say is I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the finished product never made it past the security checkpoint. Regardless, Airplane! is just straight comedy platinum as it manages to take everyday words, and then utilizes it in a way that makes it perfectly compatible with the sight gags or situation humor on display. Now with that being said, it is also worth pointing out that even though verbal humor can be hilarious, the delivery of said verbal humor has to be on point. Thankfully it would appear that every actor involved in this is up to trying to make it work and clearly succeeds from the main cast all the way down to the more minor parts. Indeed even though the majority of them choose to utilize a deadpan sense of deliver, a method that’s champion would have to easily be Leslie Nielsen, there are some who instead prefer to go in the opposite direction and to that end act more like a cartoon character due to how over the top their performance manages to go. Yet the film chooses to embrace both instead of preferring one over the other and it’s that balance which is another key for why this film works on the phenomenal level that it does. This is because even though the narrative is quite predictable, the comedy has never known the word predictability a day in its life thus creating an intriguing balance that makes for a winning mixture.

Now it is my distinct feeling that the humor in this film would not work even 80% as well as it does if the cast was not up to snuff enough to either deliver the goods, act as if they were in the most serious film of their entire career, or both. Thankfully this film’s cast is absolutely top-notch as we get wonderful work from every single performer no matter how big or little their amount of screen time. Yet even amongst this cast of comedic geniuses there are still a few stand-outs to be found. For starters I definitely have to give major props to co-star Leslie Nielsen. Indeed he may not appear until about 30-35 minutes in when things start going south, but from that moment on every single time he is on screen, he showcases a sense of deadpan humor and comedic timing that is absolutely perfect. Indeed is it really any coincidence that the vast majority of the films he made after this one were comedic in nature? I definitely think not. We also get wonderful work from veteran dramatic character actors Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges, father of Jeff “The Big Lebowski” Bridges. Indeed this duo manage to earn quite a few chuckles from Stack’s shades on shades or this being the wrong week for Bridges’ character to have attempted to quit a wide variety of increasingly dangerous substance addictions. Heck we even get great, albeit more limited in screen time, work from basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, paving the way here for Michael Jordan to make the jump in Space Jam and for LeBron in Trainwreck and sigh Space Jam 2 as well as Peter Graves from the ORIGINAL Mission: Impossible TV show as the plane’s pilot who has a few peculiarities, for lack of a better word, about him. Indeed it just seems like this film managed to get a collection of iconic stars in a wide variety of entertainment avenues, gave me a loony jungle gym to play in, and then just set them loose and let the cameras roll and the results are truly nothing short of iconic.

All in all there may be such a thing as comedy gold, but as far as I am concerned, Airplane is comedy platinum. Indeed not only is this a film that literally could be the dictionary definition for mile-a-minute especially where its jokes are concerned, but the more impressive thing is not just how virtually every joke is able to land on target, but that every single cast member involved is able to generate laughs be it a chuckle or making you roll over with laughter. Indeed although there will always be imitators who try to crack just what made this film so special I hate to break it to them, but I don’t think there will ever be another film quite like this one. That is because Airplane is the kind of timeless comedy lightning in a bottle that cannot be duplicated even though they did sadly try albeit without the involvement of the creative team behind the camera. Surely you can’t be serious you may say, but to you I will always respond: “I am serious….and don’t call me Shirley”. On a scale of 1-5 I give Airplane! “80” a solid 5 out of 5.