(Check out the list so far)
The Movie: Airplane (1980)
One Sentence Plot Summary: Leslie Nielsen reinvents his career in a movie that also happens to have a love story.
Why It’s on the List:
This is the purest comedy on the list as the plot does not matter one bit. Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty are perfectly cast in the leads, but they feel almost incidental to the various shenanigans and supporting roles. You’ve got Peter Graves playing the creepy captain but plays his role deadly seriously. Leslie Nielsen does much the same in a career turning performance as the doctor. He probably has the most famous lines in the history of comedy. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a pilot named Roger, or is the popular basketball player just moonlighting as a pilot? Robert Stack, who most people probably know as the Unsolved Mysteries host, also deadpans in his role as Rex Kramer.
That’s what makes this film so special. Although a comedy, everyone is deadly serious and playing this like an epic disaster film, which is why it works so well. There really isn’t a lot I can say about a film like this. With a comedy, you’re either laughing in on the joke or you’re not. This might be one of the best pure comedies ever made, and it’s because the directors, writers, and performers were at the top of their game.
*It’s a 40-year-old comedy. Your mileage will vary. Abortion is mentioned in the first five minutes. Some characters speak “jive.” It would be fascinating to see if a movie like this could even be made and how the comedy would be so much different.
MVP: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker are the credited directors and screenwriters. Just watch the sequel to understand the difference in quality. These three crafted a film that was so funny and memorable that no sequel or satire could ever top it. A lot of movies have tried to capture the same energy. This includes everything from The Naked Gun to Scary Movie, yet this is still the gold standard because of how tight the script is and the fact that this movie is 85 minutes. It doesn’t wear out its welcome and is just a joke machine.
Best Performance: The movie is good for much of the first half hour, and then Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack is introduced and the movie roars to life like it hadn’t before. Robert Stack also adds a great deal once he’s introduced as well, but Nielsen essentially built the second half of his career around these sorts of roles in these kinds of movies. Nielsen was incredibly 54 when this movie came out, but his biggest hit franchise, The Naked Gun, was still eight years from beginning. Nielsen just deadpans throughout and plays this so seriously that I almost can’t believe no one else has been able to capitalize on these kinds of roles.
Best Quote: “I just want to tell you both good luck. We’re all counting on you.” – Rumack
Is there a sequel? As mentioned earlier, yes. How is it? Like so many comedy sequels, it’s terrible.