“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” was a line I’ve seen quoted a million times on the internet (along with many other jokes), but I have never seen this movie. It is high time I change that.
War veteran Ted Striker (Robert Hays) had a phobia of flying ever since his last mission, which resulted in the deaths of his fellow pilots. But since his air stewardess girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) is leaving him, he had no choice but to board the same airplane she was on in a last ditch effort to get her back. The flight was uneventful in the beginning until a plane-wide food poisoning took out all three pilots in succession. The reluctant hero was prodded by Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) to take over. Step up, or everyone on the flight would perish. Can Ted overcome his fear and save the passengers and, in so doing, his failing relationship?
The first thing I noticed was how different comedy was back then compared to mainstream comedy movies now. Unlike how many of the modern mainstream comedies that liked to deliver jokes in verbal form, Airplane! was very visual with its gags. The jokes in this movie mainly come from the play on words, and often the movie threw real-world logic out the window in favor of absurdity and the unexpected. For example, the autopilot function of the airplane was a blow-up doll named Otto piloting plane. Airplane! was not afraid to commit to long bits; it nursed the ridiculousness but never let the jokes overstay their welcome. The film was at its strongest when it turned old tropes upside down and played with expectations, and sometimes the tropes weren’t even from the disaster movie genre it was supposed to parody. The plot of this movie was mostly just a vehicle for non-stop jokes; however, the never-ending stream of throwaway gags can be hit or miss. There were some duds among the amazing humor.
Being released in 1980, some of the jokes do not age well. The jokes regarding race and other minorities were not overtly vulgar, but Airplane! did utilize many stereotypes that would now be generally considered offensive or at the very least insensitive. Two of the three only black men in the movie were part of a recurring gag in which they spoke in indecipherable black slang (improvised by the actors) that required subtitles and an interpreter to be understood. The worst and laziest of them all was perhaps one of the men working in air traffic control. The entire punchline of the character was that he was a flamboyant gay caricature. Yikes!
I loved The Naked Gun franchise and other Leslie Nielsen comedies as a child, and Airplane! helped me re-experience the silliness modern comedies haven’t been able to properly capture, but maybe it was because I’ve grown and changed that I did not fall in love with this comedy classic. Airplane! definitely has its sharp and infinitely quotable moments, but viewed as a whole it paints an uneven picture, especially toward the end where the movie lost some of its steam.