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The Carletonian

“I say let ‘em crash!”: A review of “Airplane!” (1980)

What’s up with the exclamation point in the title of “Airplane!”? It feels like a nickel sarcastically tossed into the hat of a street performer. It’s a half-hearted gesture that draws attention to the mundanity of what it’s trying to exclaim. Most of us will lose hours and days of our lives on planes, spending too much hard earned cash on pins-and-needles in the posterior and to call armrest hogs our neighbors for a time. And in the midst of this misery, the robotically grinning flight attendants still have the gall to say “Without a heart, it’s just a machine.” We’re all in this uncomfortable experience together, and we’re all praying that this giant metal bird doesn’t fall apart midflight. So we may as well feign excitement. “Airplane!”

It is in this discomfort that Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker find comedy. They know that many of us have been stuck next to an overly talkative seat-buddy like Ted Striker (Robert Hays), who often dully recounts his love affair with flight attendant Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), when we just wanted some shut-eye instead. They know that we’ve seen many-a overwrought tearful goodbye unfold at a gate between young lovers separating for an unthinkable two weeks. Regardless, I think all can attest to just wanting an uneventful trip from Point A to Point B. Everyone wants a smooth flight. 

But as in any great all-out comedy, our writers find a million and one ways to short us of exactly that. As Elaine reports to head pilot Captain Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves) that the fish dinner is causing an incapacitating sickness, he nervously looks over to find a fish’s skeleton, picked clean, on his plate. The little girl on life support, flying to Chicago for a heart transplant, keeps getting her IV drip knocked out of her arm. And Ted, an ex-air force pilot with PTSD, may be the one person onboard who can keep the plane in the air once people start dropping like flies. Meanwhile, a crew of people on the ground sputter in their attempts to communicate with the struggling flight as the media closes in on the story. Newspapers (inexplicably printed at an ungodly hour) spin toward the screen detailing the hilarity onboard; political talk shows are covering and debating it. “Those people knew what they were getting into when they bought their tickets. I say let ‘em crash!”

But I think what I enjoy most about “Airplane!” is how the language characters speak gets misdirected as much as the plane does. You have the classic “Shirley, you can’t be serious” met with “I am serious … and don’t call me Shirley,” but it doesn’t stop there. The script is clogged with such corruptions and wordplay, with the characters barrel-rolling around each other’s phrasing at all times. And yet, it eschews a sense of frenetic improvisation in favor of a feeling of strict textuality in the delivery of its goofiness. Our actors don’t just read the lines straight; they deliver them stone cold sober. It grants “Airplane!” a weirdly deliberate quality that heightens its humor; it draws attention to the craft of its writing without winking too much at its audience. It works at its best when none of its actors feel like they’re in on the joke and when it feels like they’re living in a movie called “Airplane” instead of “Airplane!”

To add on to its parody of real life and of language, “Airplane!” also aims for a general spoof of the movies, which veers into problematic territory at times. We open with a “Jaws” homage, complete with the “fin” of the airplane’s tail poking through the clouds, and our first flashback to Ted and Elaine’s relationship features a too-long “Saturday Night Fever” dance sequence. There are a number of risky jokes about Black stereotypes, between the concept of “speaking jive” to a flashback sequence where Ted and Elaine “civilize” an African tribe by teaching its members how to play basketball. These bits poke fun at established tropes in blaxploitation films and the colonial narratives of adventure movies, but they still feel awkward in what is otherwise  just a silly set of jokes. These jokes are offensive, but they also feel dragged out and hence take up a larger fraction of the film’s comedic tapestry in comparison to what works better. These poorly aged parts may be too much for some, and I think there’s enough good material here to make up for their awkwardness, but their presence cannot go unacknowledged. 

With that, “Airplane!” has a kind of tripartite approach to its humor. It plays with the uncomfortable experiences, the language, and the cultural lexicon of its audience. In this way, its comedy feels pretty inclusive. This isn’t to suggest that it runs a “safe” or “clean” bill; pearl-clutchers will no doubt disapprove of the bawdiness which pervades all of its corners. However, the grand breadth of what it puns off of means that most audiences can connect with it in some way. And yet this connection is severed by the seriousness with which the actors take the goofiness unfolding, and this unexpected violation is what ties the trinity embodied in its writing together. While “Airplane!” encounters turbulence in those select gags that alienate, but the strength of its laughs keeps it aloft nonetheless. 

Rating: 4/5

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