Judge Bill Gibron is bringin' this review from the 813 to the [insert your area code here].
Unrated—and out of control!
Nashawn Wade (Kevin Hart, Scary Movie 3) gets his ass stuck in an airplane toilet and is award $100 million by a jury of his ethnically diverse peers. He uses the money to fulfill a lifelong dream: he starts NWA—Nashawn Wade Airlines—a carrier catering to an African American clientele. With the help of his scheming cousin Muggsy (Method Man, How High, Method and Red) and a laid-back pilot, Capt. Mack (Snoop Dogg, Bones, Starsky and Hutch), he hopes for a successful launch of the company during its maiden flight. But all is not perfect with the PC transportation alternative. The plane is divided into three classes—First, Business, and Low—and the majority of the passengers are experiencing a black-based voyage for the first time. Especially intimidated are the Hunkee Family—Dad (Tom Arnold, The Stupids, McHale's Navy), son Billy (Ryan Pinkston, Punk'd), daughter Heather (Arielle Kebbel, Gilmore Girls), and future stepmom Barbara (Missi Pyle, Big Fish, Along Came Polly). They are the only white people on the flight! Everything seems to be going swimmingly for Nashawn until two unexpected events occur—he meets up with old girlfriend Giselle and his pilot unexpectedly "expires." Between battling Muggsy, whose consistently mucking up Business class with his get-rich-quick schemes (including gambling and a strip club) and keeping the upper atmosphere party hoppin', the boss has his work cut for him. And now he has to find a way to land the craft, or there wouldn't be a second flight for the Soul Plane.
For the first hour or so, Soul Plane is definitely trying. It is not as outrageous as its Caucasian inspiration, the ZAZ classic Airplane!, nor can it hold a craven candle to such recent examples of race-baiting hilarity like the classic Undercover Brother or the Friday films. But when it's working, it does beat out other urban comedies that don't even attempt to offend with their politically correct proclivities. And yet, once the decision is made to kill off a major character, thus providing the necessary third act crisis (goddamn you Syd Field!), this incredibly uneven movie just gives up. It decides that the feel good elements of the plot are more important than the off the hook comedic hijinks and constantly tosses in interpersonal irritation to stop the satire dead in its tracks. There is so much potential in this idea, a chance for director Jessy Terrero to combine the solid, scandalous wit of modern black comedy with the elements of the classic spoof, that it seems like Soul Plane can't miss. Yet for some reason, he is not able to achieve either goal. That is why, even when it is entertaining, this average air-born buffoonery feels tame and tired. It's like a blue humor routine ripped apart by the standards and practices people before going on the air. There are more outright laughs in the first 20 minutes of any episode of BET's Comic View than exist in the entire 100 minutes of Soul Plane, and that black network classic is far more fun. Curse words whiz by at the speed of a Concorde throughout the entire film, but they appear to just be the necessary placement of street cred into a rather urbane urban lampoon. Soul Plane wants to insult you, but then it sits back and apologizes profusely afterward. Some formula for frivolity.
Besides, the movie should really be funnier than it is. Except for its uninspired choice for leading man (Kevin Hart is just out of his league here), Soul Plane has got talent and potential out the ang/ing-yizzle. From the numerous cameos by some of the leading African American stand ups in America (Sommora, Mo'Nique, Loni Love, Godfrey, D.L. Hughley) and the work of more recognizable comedic actors (John Witherspoon, Brian Hooks), there is more than enough potential amusement to go around. And when given the freedom to ad-lib—Hooks and Sommora's sly sex scenes, Snoop's pilot patter, Mo'Nique and Loni's tag team security sequences—the humor is jammin'. Indeed, an entirely improvised film about an all African American airline would have been better than the stifling script here. Yet extremes are not what Soul Plane is all about. It just doesn't want to exist for its wit—it wants to explain everything as well. Instead of following the Airplane! model and making a movie that doesn't need logic or rationalization, this comedy circumvents its hilarity by tossing in unnecessary exposition where and when it is definitely not needed. Our hero doesn't just own an airline; there is an entire litigious back-story about a flight, a faulty toilet, and a dead dog that has to been waded through before we get to any real burlesque. And just as the monumental Method Man or the terrific Snoop Dogg favor us with another bit of rapper's delight, our lead character's love life comes crashing down all around the cleverness. In the behind the scenes material, director Terrero states that this version of the screenplay was "a complete rewrite," an improvement over the original that got many of the cast members interested enough to sign on. One would hate to see the first draft, considering how weak this over-clarifying farce is.
Perhaps the most disturbing facet of the film is how it lets the African American community down. Soul Plane celebrates sad stereotypes as it tries to circumvent them, going the foul formulaic way whenever it can't come up with something more clever. While it may be mildly funny the first time, do we really need an obese gay black man named "Flame" flitting around like a puffed up pansy? No matter how hard he tries to find the inner dignity in the dialogue, Gary Anthony Williams can't help but being a far too broad caricature. Same applies to the actually-African co-pilot, saddled with the incredibly sad last name of Gaeman (gay-man? Get it? Gay-Man! Yes, again). When upset, he speaks his faux tribal tantrums that become the source of ridicule for those around him. And when he finally exits the film, it's so anticlimactic as to foster disgust, not sadness. From white women obsessed with big black boners to the worn-out notion that every lady on the plane has a booty the size of a shrimp boat, Soul Plane wants to wade around in a non-agenda desire to delightfully defame. But it won't go all the way. It won't take the bold bad taste road and really rip into its subject. It wants to exploit ethnicity while avoiding controversy. It paints white people as hopeless, but then also undermines its own demographic by simultaneously pandering to and poking fun of it. Unrated or not (and the additional five minutes of footage all revolve around sex and drugs), this is one film that needed a complete recasting of concepts before it ever took off the ground. As it stands, Soul Plane is reminiscent of air travel post 9/11—overlong, overcomplicated, and overwrought. It's a real pain in the rectum that would be funny if it weren't so aggravating.
At least MGM is to be credited for giving this obvious niche title a tricked-out DVD release that many finding favor with the film will feel is fantastic. Between the outtakes (funny, but there are too few), deleted scenes (four, adding nothing of importance), the complete version of the "Survivor" in-flight safety video (forced, but enjoyable), and a couple of featurettes—the overstuffed puff piece pride of "Boarding Pass: The Making of Soul Plane" and the nothing-new-here "The Upgrade" short on director Terrero—this is a nice compendium of material. The best bonus however, is the commentary track, featuring director Terrero and stars Arnold, Godfrey, Williams, and Hart. Just like the film, it's dynamite for the first 35 minutes or so. Everyone is riffing on the scenes and each other and the silly attacks are warm and witty. But suddenly, everyone runs out of steam and the alternate narrative dissipates. We end up being dragged down into long pauses, absent insight, and incredibly juvenile jabs. By the end, everyone is ready to sign off, including the audience. Still, the Roaring Lion is to be commended. Not only do they beef up the added value, but they do provide the film with a wonderful 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (which is beautiful in all its music video visual imagery) and a bass-bumping Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround that actually lets all the speakers suggest immersion.
Good looks, nice sound and a bunch of digital bling bling can't save this film from itself. Soul Plane could have created a new, hip update of the classic 1980 free-for-all. Instead, it went the safe route, and ended up being derivative. Black comedy is the most consistently funny humor in all of current popular culture. Soul Plane only captures a microscopic part of it, then ask for forgiveness for doing so.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Tom Arnold, Kevin Hart, Gary Anthony Williams, Godfrey, and Director Jessy Terrero
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