Directed and Written by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker
Since they are all self-parodies anyway, the notion of making a satirical version of Airport and its three ridiculous sequels seems superfluous, if not impossible. But Airplane! may be this summer's most cheerful lunacy. Its style is basic collegiate raunch (imagine a disciplined Animal House or a frugal 1941). Its plot is an admitted rip-off of an even earlier example of the imperiled-airliner genre, 1957's Zero Hour. What is particular to the new film is its jostling comic inventiveness and pitch-black humor. The pilot and co-pilot (Peter Graves and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) are stricken, in flight, by food poisoning. There is another pilot (Robert Hays) aboard, but having led his squadron into disaster during combat, he is afraid to fly. Before finally agreeing to land the plane, he passes the time telling his sad, tedious story to fellow passengers, many of whom commit suicideliterallyrather than listen to his droning.
Even if his tale were something more than a pastiche of romance movie clichésoffering, incidentally, targets ranging from Saturday Night Fever to From Here to Eternityit is hard to imagine anyone paying him much attention. There is so much more unplanned in-flight entertainment going on elsewhere. Up in the cockpit, a child is criticizing Jabbar for not hustling on defense. The boy himself is being slyly propositioned by marvelously straight-faced Pilot Graves. "Have you ever seen a grownup man naked?" he inquires in the same tone he might use to describe the flight plan. Eliciting no response, he tries a subtler approach: "Do you like Turkish prison movies?"
But then, things are rough all over.
Back in the cabin there is the obligatory little girl with the obligatory malady journeying to a life-or-death operation. Cheering her up with a song, one of the hostesses knocks the child's life-support system loose with a merry swoop of her guitar. On the ground, an increasingly harassed airport manager (Lloyd Bridges) reverts to bad habits as the pressure increases ("I guess I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue"). There is also, naturally, a senior pilot (Robert Stack) who is expected to talk the plane in. He is supposed to be lovably gruff, but is, in fact, just plain meanspirited. Veteran Actors Bridges, Graves and Stack are all wonderfully alive to the opportunity to send up roles they have had to play straight for most of their careersgood sports, all of them.
Airplane! is a splendidly tacky, totally tasteless, completely insignificant flight, a gooney bird of a movie that looks as if it could never get off the ground and then surprises and delights with its free-spirited aerobatics.
By Richard Schickel