Combustible Celluloid
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With: Robert Hayes, Julie Hagerty, Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lorna Patterson, Stephen Stucker, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Barbara Billingsley, Howard Jarvis
Written by: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Directed by: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 87
Date: 02/07/1980

Airplane! (1980)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Shirley Thing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The definition of "deadpan" starts and ends with Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker's Airplane!.

Their brilliant comedy is so totally in check that it almost plays like a straightforward drama; and indeed, quite a bit less hysterical than the airplane disaster movies it spoofs. It has inspired countless knock-offs, notably the use of background nonsense while the foreground is played straight. But, ironically, not a single film made in the 25 years since has captured its same brand of stone-faced hilarity.

Robert Hayes stars as a burned-out war hero, Ted Striker, who loses his airline stewardess girlfriend, Elaine (Julie Hagarty) and boards a commercial aircraft to try to win her back. When most of the passengers and crew get sick, Ted becomes the only candidate who can possibly land the plane.

As Dr. Rumack, Leslie Nielsen so completely steals the film that he became the filmmakers' favorite for a subsequent TV series ("Police Squad!") and three more films (The Naked Gun trilogy). But even Nielsen's later performances degraded into broad slapstick after Airplane! (Spy Hard, Mr. Magoo, etc.)

No other film packs quite the same number of jokes into each minute of screen time without calling attention to the fact that they're jokes. It's a dumb comedy that assumes intelligence on the part of its audience -- a rare bird if ever there was one.

DVD Details: In 2005, Paramount re-released this classic in a "Don't Call Me Shirley Edition." Viewers can watch the movie itself, or in the "long haul" version, which features deleted scenes, interviews, and other goodies. Unfortunately, these extras cannot be accessed without watching the film. Otherwise the disc comes with a trivia track and a trailer. In 2012, a Blu-ray edition followed.

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