"Airplane!," a derisive spoof of the "Airport" series, has its moments. If it had as many as the movies it attempts to send up, "Airplane!," now at area theaters, might have been worth shouting about.
The movie isn't skillful enough to back up its satiric presumptions. Though it obviously aims to be sassy and uninhibited, "Airplane!" never approaches the comic heights achieved unwittingly by "Airport '75" and the peerless "Concorde -- Airport 1979."
"Airplane!" was tossed together by Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker, who began collaborating as collegiate cabaret humorists in Madison, Wis., in the early '70s. They emerged as a movie-writing team with the low-budget hit "Kentucky Fried Movie," an anthology of movie and TV parodies whose miscellaneous, hit-and-miss format persists in "Airplane!," suggesting that the team could use more practice at feature-length exposition. Since a minor hit can lead to instant advancement in the here-today, gone-tomorrow crapshoot of contemporary Hollywood, the young writers also shared directing duties on "Airplane!" The film looks witty every so often (the opening sequence, which evokes "Jaws" in a cloud formation, boasts nifty miniatures by Richard O. Helmer and special-effects photography by Bruce Logan), amateurish rather more often and presentably rather more often and presentably banal most of the time. Fortunately, the subject matter lends itself to a presentably banal look.
Abrahams and the Zuckers have appealing flights of silliness: an inflatable, sexually opportunistic "automatic pilot"; a specialist from the Mayo Clinic whose office shelves are lined with mayonnaise jars; the Christian names of the flight crew -- Clarence, Roger and Victor -- provoking such transmissions as "You have clearance, Clarence," "Roger, Roger" and "What's that vector, Victor?"; a ground controller's reassurance that "flying an airplane is just like riding a bicycle -- it's just harder to put baseball cards in the spokes"; a stewardess offering a passenger "light reading" in the form of a pamphlet entitled "famous Jewish Sports Legends"; another stewardess conking passengers on the head as she blithely lugs a guitar up the aisle.
Unfortunately, a high percentage of the humor is extremely coarse and literal-minded. The two strains merge, with trite inevitability, at the moment when someone remarks "The ---'s gonna hit the fan!" and a shot instantly follows of a fan getting pelted.
The earliest trouble sign occurs in a scene designed to establish the romantic conflict between the young leads: Robert Hays as a fighter pilot turned cabbie and Julie Haggerty as his estranged fiancee, a stewardess. They are destined to share flying chores aboard a jet bound from Los Angeles to Chicago after the crew and several passengers are incapacitated by a tainted fish dinner. Hays is introduced abandoning his (with Howard Jarvis in the back seat and the meter running) in order to catch up with Haggerty in the terminal, where he fails in an attempt to patch up a lovers' quarrel. When she departs, he casts a glance directly at the camera and exclaims, "What a pi--er!"
It's a little early for newcomer Hays, who bears an amusing resemblance to Jean-Paul Belmondo, to presume on nonexistent familiarity with the audience. Slipping out of character for a profane aside violates the integrity of Hays' otherwise straightforward, deadpan characterization. In a similar respect, Haggerty's ingenuous sincerity is undercut by occasional arbitrary crudities.
The filmmakers appear to be over-compensating for their inability to sustain an amusing plot . The romance between Hays and Haggerty is the only shred of narrative in "Airplane!," and it's not exactly sturdy. There isn't a subplot to be found among the cliched cross-section of passengers or the ground-support personnel dedicated to coaxing the stricken plane down safely.
One of the wittiest resources in the film is the presence of veteran actors who impose instant, overfamiliar authority when they impersonate low-keyed manly cliches: Lloyd Bridges as a tense chief dispatcher, Robert Stack as a gruff ground controller, Peter Graves as a bland pilot, Leslie Nielsen as a dignified doctor. The humor in the deadpan performances is consistently upstaged by the filmmakers' anxious clowning. For example, a conversation between Brides and Stack is interrupted by inexplicable gags: A spear hits the wall and a watermelon falls from the ceiling. Nielsen's preposterous reassurances to panicky passengers result in his getting a false Pinocchio nose that stretches each time he fibs about the danger they're facing. It's dreafully apparent that the filmmakers don't trust the audience to get a joke unless they underline and exaggerate it, usually with a kamikaze sight gag that obliterates the subtle effects.
The continutiy keeps lapsing into flashback, ostensibly to fill in the romance of Hays and Haggerty but actually to allow the filmmakers parodistic digressions unrelated to the "Airport" series -- spoofs of famous scenes from "Saturday Night Fever" and "From Here to Eternity" and even a gratuitous swipe at the parting scene between Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker in "Since You Went Away."
"Airpland!" conspicuously lacks the deft, affectionate, sustained satiric styles of "Movie Movie" and "The Big Bus," an earlier, wittier takeoff on the "Airport" premise. Nevertheless, its smutty, hostile tendencies are more likely to pay off at the box office.
It's more embarrassing to fall short of the standards set by the targets themselves. There's nothing in "Airplane!," desperately madcap as it is, to equal the runaway hilarity of Karen Black behind the controls in "Airport '75" or the Concorde constantly dodging Robert Wagner's sabotage attempts in "Airport 1979."
Indeed, "Airplane!" confirms the impression previously created by "High Anxiety" and "Wholly Moses!" that some tempting satiric targets may be more elusive and endearing than the hunters imagine.
How can you improve on the ridiculous when it's already sublime?