Director-Jim Abrahams, David & Jerry Zucker
Starring-Robert Hays, Leslie Nielsen, Julie Hagerty
Scott’s Review #1,087
Reviewed December 2, 2020
Airplane! (1980) is a landmark film in the spoof genre, leading the pack in the decade of silly (the 1980’s) where films of this ilk and dumb comedies in general became a dime a dozen oversaturating the market. While the film is unabashedly brainless with gags for miles, the jokes work, and the tasteless brand of humor provide plenty of belly laughs.
Better yet, Airplane! never ages, holding up incredibly well long after its initial release. It’s just perfect for a Saturday late-night watch, or when one needs cheering. It’s in my Top 10 of comedies.
When it was originally released, the timing was perfect to spoof the by then aging world of disaster films. I refuse to believe that Jim Abraham and the Zucker brothers had malcontent on their minds since they created a friendly and benevolent yarn that’s just perfectly timed. Good comedy is tough to find, but this film gets it right. The monotone dialogue said with straight faces is what makes the hysterics genuine and palpable.
Not unfairly, is to say that Airplane! is to disaster films what Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was to daytime soap operas. A celebration and a clever wink to each, infusing much needed light-hearted appreciations. It’s fun to re-watch Airport (1970) and Airport ’75 with fresh eyes and a new perspective in parallel to this film.
Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is an ex-fighter pilot traumatized by the war, now working as a taxi driver. He is now terrified of flying despite his previous occupation, His girlfriend, Elaine (Julie Haggerty), conveniently a flight attendant, dumps him just prior to her flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. Naturally, Ted throws caution to the wind and boards the flight in hopes of reconciling.
When several of the passengers and flight crew succumb to food poisoning, an inflatable named Otto must steer the plane towards Chicago. The crew convinces Ted to muster up the courage to safely land the plane because Otto cannot do it and subsequently conquer his fear of flying. A perilous yet comical landing ensues, and Ted and Elaine happily reunite.
The plot is a direct steal from Airport ’75 when poor Karen Black’s flight attendant character famously is instructed how to land the aircraft. Until, in sexist fashion, the men arrive to take control, sending her back to serve coffee. This is intentional and spot-on to show the ridiculous nature of that plot point.
The gags are legendary, the “Surely you can’t be serious”, “I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley” exchange the most famous one, always providing a laugh. The effortless dialogue as inane as it is somehow works exceptionally well and combines brilliantly with the pacing and delivery. It’s like a long and wonderful episode of television’s Saturday Night Live.
The chemistry between Ted and Elaine is very strong, making the audience root for their eventual reconciliation though it’s obvious they will ride off into the proverbial sunset together. Actors, Hays and Hagerty deserve tremendous praise for aligning the characters so well. Also of note, are the efforts of Leslie Nielsen and Peter Graves as Doctor Rumack and Captain Oveur, respectively. Nielsen would subsequently become famous for spoof films, none of them as good as Airplane!
I’ll never profess to be a slapstick person, but Airplane! (1980) is one that I embrace, undoubtedly because of my love for disaster films and fondness for airplanes. Advisable is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the zany ride that this satirical and very funny film offers.