Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, May 21, 2018


As the seventies ended and a new decade dawned, the once-prosperous disaster movie genre was widely considered a joke. The writing team of Z.A.Z. – composed of Jim Abraham, David and Jerry Zucker – decided to take this very literally. The trio, previously of the brilliant “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” got inspiration by recording late night TV. One night, they caught “Zero Hour!” in its entirety. Realizing this was the perfect blueprint for a series of gags taking the piss out of disaster movies, they started working on “Airplane!” The trio would direct the project themselves. The film would become a big hit right out of the gate, showing that the public was ready to laugh at the disaster genre. It has remained a beloved classic, widely considered one of the best parodies ever made.

Having already reviewed “Zero Hour!,” it's probably unnecessary for me to summarize the plot of “Airplane!” But I'll have a go at it anyway. After loosing most of his squadron during the war, pilot Ted Stryker is too traumatized to fly again. His fear is messing up the relationship he has with Elaine, a stewardess. Ted grabs a last minute plane ticket onto the plane Elaine is working on, in hopes of saving the relationship. Aboard the plane, bad fish leads to food poisoning among the crew and passengers. It's up for Ted, and his help on the ground, to save the day. But none of that is really important.

Coming after nearly a whole decade of disaster movies, you'd expect “Airplane!” to riff heavily on the genre. Truthfully, most of the parodied moments are only taken from a few film. Yes, “Zero Hour!” provides most of the material. Lines about the fish, quitting smoking, and Ted's job history are taken directly from “Zero Hour!” It only takes a little exaggeration to transform scenes about a little boy entering the cockpit or an out-of-control female passenger into comedy classics. Among newer films, “Airplane!” draws the most from the first two “Airport” movies. There's a pretty good gag involving a guitar-playing nun and a sick little girl. A passing line between airport announcers concerning an abortion is probably an off-hand reference to the melodramatic romantic subplots in those films. More importantly, the film is goofing on the self-serious atmosphere of these films more than anything else.

The best jokes in “Airplane!” rely on a freewheeling sense of goofiness. The film is packed start to finish with absurdist gags. I think everyone has their favorites. The constant wordplay is beautifully executed, leading to instantly quotable lines, circular conversations, and reporters stealing photos off the wall. A sequence that really shouldn't work, when Ted flashbacks to how he met Elaine, is elevated by Z.A.Z. just shoving in as many goofy gags as possible. There's no reason for there to be horses in bed, wildly attacking dogs, or Robert Stack navigating through various rear-projected scenarios. Other than that it's really funny, of course. There are so many jokes in “Airplane!,” that it's easy to miss them. Little gags about magazine racks, announcements on the plane, or the Mayo clinic might not be caught immediately. That packed-to-the-gills mentality is what makes “Airplane!” a classic.

Recently, it's become common to look back on comedy classics from the eighties and realize they push the boundaries of good taste a little too often. “Airplane!” does this too. There's joke about big, jiggly titties, fellatio on an inflatable pilot, and little girls liking their men like they like their coffee. Luckily, most of these gags are silly enough to avoid being offensive. Jokes about jive-talking black passengers are honestly hilarious, the film pushing the comedic premise as far as possible. Among the ground crew is Johnny, a mincing, camp-gay stereotype. Luckily, Stephen Stucker is energetic and insane enough to get a lot of laughs anyway. Only a gag about African native playing basketball feels misplaced. Otherwise, I doubt “Airplane!” will upset any delicate, modern sensibilities.

As consistently hilarious as “Airplane!” is, I honestly don't know if it wouldn't have worked without the perfectly committed cast. These days, Z.A.Z. casting stately character actors in ridiculous roles is widely recognized. Peter Graves keeping an utterly straight face while attempting to seduce a child or Robert Stack reacting to increasingly silly situations without cracking a smile makes the material even funnier. Leslie Nielson was so hysterical as the character given some of the most globose dialogue that his career would be completely redirected. Lloyd Bridges slowly loosing his shit is certainly a sight to see.

Topping the cast is Robert Hays and the whisper-voiced Julie Haggerty. Hays delivers some of the film's screwiest running gags, about his drinking habit and long-winded stories, with ease. Haggerty, meanwhile, is always willing to play along with the script's absurdist directions. Lastly, I have to mention Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's self-aware cameo. Abdul-Jabbar's acting abilities may be pretty sketchy but the guy is clearly having a good time. Just his mere presence constitutes one of the film's most memorable gags.

It's a testament to “Airplane!'s” comedic power that very few of the gags falter. A running gag parodying a then-relevant coffee commercial is pretty baffling to modern eyes. Like many comedies of this style, “Airplane!'s” energy does start to falter a little in its last third. For the most part, the film is still hysterical. The Z.A.Z. team would produce a few other parody films of varying degrees of quality, with the first “Naked Gun” and “Hot Shots!” holding up fairly well. Their solo work, especially David Zucker's, is harder to recommend. But none of this takes anything away from “Airplane!,” a film that remains hilarious all these years later. [9/10]

[X] Awards Bait Ballad*
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[] Heroic Sacrifices
[] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

*Parodied by the singing nun

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