TIFF’s TOGA! The Reinvention of American Comedy Review: Airplane! (1980)

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Airplane-1980


Cast: Leslie Nielsen, ,
Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s TOGA! The Reinvention of American Comedy which runs from July 17th to August 29th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information of this unprecedented film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.

There’s a feature on the special edition DVD of Airplane! that allows for the film to be watched with cutaways to deleted scenes, interviews, trivia titbits, and more. It’s a nifty little offering that, for all its worthy fan service aspirations, sort of misses the point of the movie it’s supplementing. This is not a film from which you can cut away: it’s hyperbolic to claim a gag per frame, but then it’s hard to imagine anything that comes closer. Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker adopt the age-old philosophy of hurtling absolutely everything they’ve got at the screen to see what sticks; in the case of Airplane! and its relentless wit, they manage to be incredibly adhesive.

 Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker adopt the age-old philosophy of hurtling absolutely everything they’ve got at the screen to see what sticks; in the case of Airplane! and its relentless wit, they manage to be incredibly adhesive.

Airplane-1980

The sharp declines in the writer/directors’ respective careers—they have subsequently worked together and apart—provide perhaps the optimum exemplar of the opposite end of the spoof movie spectrum. Why then such incredible success in 1980, why does this film remain so entrenched in popular culture, why can anyone say “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley” and be greeted with a grin? It’s a fair claim that the Abrams-Zucker shtick is at its strongest here, but more important still is the reality of oversaturation: where the movie’s modern counterparts are sequels to spoofs of satires or reactions to franchises kicked off five years ago, Airplane! arrived at precisely the right moment to capitalise on the proliferation of action-disaster that had worn weary the American cinema-going public.

But it’s not the timeliness of the movie’s release that earns it fame eternal: it’s the timelessness of the gags, which run the gamut from naughty sexuality to silly satire to snappy wordplay. Crucial to its enormous success is the unwavering commitment to inclusivity: Abrahams and the brothers Zucker are sure to include every breed of humour in their script, tailoring the characters and scenarios to milk the maximum laughs from every conceivable audience taste. It’s broad, in other words, but not with the negativity that word has come to suggest: there’s no shame to be had in appealing to a larger pool of people, particularly when it’s done so well and so wittily. This is a script that fosters a theatre filled with giggles, the kind of film laced with gags that go missed in the laughter of the last one.

 But it’s not the timeliness of the movie’s release that earns it fame eternal: it’s the timelessness of the gags, which run the gamut from naughty sexuality to silly satire to snappy wordplay.

And what’s a great script without an equally great delivery? What would Airplane! be without the talent who bring it to life? Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty front the film’s parodical side, their romantic back story espoused by way of the silliest twists on contemporary movie scenes, peppered throughout their amusingly absurd interchanges. And then, of course, there is the great Leslie Nielsen, bulldozing his Forbidden Planet leading man persona and building a new and better career before our very eyes. He remains the master of deadpan delivery, greeting the patent nonsense that stuffs the Zucker-Abrams dialogue with the utmost professionalism that multiplies the comedy tenfold, and paves the way for Frank Drebin—and with him bigger, better, funnier things—to come. Surely there’s not a single member of this cast that’s out of place: each excels in their respective role, from Lloyd Bridges’ substance-abusing air traffic controller to Peter Graves’ immortally inappropriate pilot.

Interesting a feature as it is, the aforementioned “extended” edition of Airplane! robs the film of its greatest asset: its tightness. Here is a well-oiled comedy machine of a movie, perfectly tuned to deliver maximum gags at masterful speed. Adding deleted scenes and other curiosities serves only to show how beautifully built a piece of work it is, how carefully and considerately it’s been constructed. Abrahams and the Zucker brothers may not be the most elegant or eloquent writer/directors around, but they know how to get a laugh and stretch a gag to feature length. It’s short-sighted to say that the art of the spoof is dead, but a movie like Airplane! makes it hard to believe it hasn’t peaked.

[notification type=”star”]85/100 ~ GREAT. Airplane! is a well-oiled comedy machine of a movie, perfectly tuned to deliver maximum gags at masterful speed.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.