Judge Mike Rubino doesn't speak jive.
"Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?"—Captain Oveur
Airplane! is one of the funniest movies ever made.
Facts of the Case
When a bad batch of fish takes out the entire flight crew on a 747 headed to Chicago, a scarred ex-fighter pilot (Robert Hays, Angie) has to muster up the courage to land the plane and win back his girlfriend.
Airplane! is like the Citizen Kane of manic comedies. It synthesized broad slapstick humor, improvisation, and parody of the self-important disaster movie fad of the late-70s into a blisteringly funny film. Shirley, you've seen it.
The gag-a-minute pacing of Airplane! certainly isn't new—Woody Allen and Mel Brooks had been churning out that kind of humor for years. The style, as more recent attempts like the Scary Movie franchise or American Carol have shown, is a lot harder to pull off than it seems. Good comedy is all about timing, and there's perhaps no finer example than this 87-minute masterpiece; every time Lloyd Bridges (High Noon) takes another narcotic, or Julie Hagerty (What About Bob?) reflects on Robert Hays's drinking problem, or Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible) asks a child an inappropriate question, comic perfection is achieved, both in timing and delivery. I give most of the credit to the cast, which is comprised mainly of dramatic Hollywood actors—many of which appeared in the very disaster movies this film parodies.
The brilliance of Airplane! is in its layers of humor. Yes, it's parodying Airport '77 and Zero Hour!, but it's also making fun of conventions in big-budget storytelling. Melodramatic flashbacks to "the war," an overtly foreboding score that adds inappropriate punctuation to plot developments, and 300-pound lines of dialogue ("The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner."), work on a deeper level than just making pop culture references. They poke fun at how movie mechanics can manipulate our emotions. There's also a simpler layer of slapstick working on top of it all: a singing nun accidentally knocks out a dying girl's I.V.; an inflatable auto-pilot with the hots for Julie Hagerty; and a series of passengers lining up to slap a hysterical mother. The slapstick humor resonates on a base level, giving the movie a frantic surrealism with its own set of rules.
The film's creative team, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, would go on to make plenty of comedies in this style (to varying degrees of success); yet, nothing really holds a candle to Airplane!. That movie landed at the perfect time in Hollywood history, and went on to inspire an entire generation of filmmakers. Sure there are comedies with more heart, or deeper characters (although maybe none as "meta" as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing himself playing Roger Murdock), but few films have the "quantity-to-quality joke" ratio as perfect as this.
Airplane! is being released for the first time on Blu-ray, but is only available at Best Buy. The high definition upgrade is worth it for the remastered transfer alone. The colors are bright, the edges are sharp, and the film grain is just right. This 1980 picture cleaned up nicely. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also great, with an even balance featuring a score that busts in at just the right time without blowing away any dialogue (my favorite sound gag is the ominous music that plays whenever the reporter says, "Alright boys, let's take some pictures," and they proceed to steal framed photos off of the walls). The extras on the disc are identical to the "Don't Call Me Shirley!" Edition released in 2005: a commentary track with the Zucker brothers, Abrahams, and producer Jon Davison; a trivia track; and the "Long Haul" mode, which inserts deleted scenes and interviews into the film via a Trans-American logo that pops on the screen. While these features are all great, you should be able to access those deleted scenes and interviews independent of the film. Having to sit through the feature and look for a pop-up logo is a supplement that's been around since the early days of the DVD format.
I picked the wrong week to give up laughing.
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Scales of Justice
• Extended Version
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