Thursday, July 16, 2009

The magnificent "Airplane!" - and why lots of modern comedy is no good.

Today, parody movies are in a lousy state. "Meet the Spartans" and "Scary/Superhero/Epic/Date Movie" are generally lame and unfunny. The blueprint for spoof films was established almost 30 years ago by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker ("ZAZ").

They took genre pictures - disaster flicks, cop movies - and brought them to life with hysterical jokes that ranged from slapstick to social commentary. I can credit them with 3 of the funniest comedies ever made: the first two "Naked Gun" films and "Airplane!" I'm quite a hard-ass when it comes to modern comedies, and the brilliance of these three can show you why. [note: Even "Top Secret!" is hysterical, if flawed]

1980's "Airplane!" is a perfect take on airline disaster pictures. It largely spoofs the four "Airport" movies of the 70's, where tension was created via a health scare, bombers and/or bad flight conditions. Keep in mind the two staples of every old disaster pic: half the film dealt with the terror of faulty equipment, the rest focused on the difficult relationships between the people involved. It's all melodrama - while a skyscraper has combustibly-poor wiring or a boat completely capsizes, you see a couple's rocky marriage and/or an armed passenger in heroin withdrawal.

The ZAZ team really ran with these tropes. Ted Stryker is a fallen combat pilot, plagued by a failed bombing run, and he goes to the local airport to keep Elaine from leaving him. She's a stewardess, so Ted boards Elaine's flight as he tries to talk her around. Failing to win her back time and again, Stryker must confront his shattered confidence after tainted seafood hurts the passengers.

Of course, the pilots are sick too - Captain Oveur looks at his plate and sees a whole fish skeleton. Ted is the only man who can save them, but he's a wreck.

"Airplane!" works so well because it mixes commitment to what it parodies with brilliant jokes, delivered perfectly. The auto-pilot can't land the plane, but it's better than nothing - it's also a blow-up doll. Ted's "drinking problem" is that he throws his drinks at his own face. Every time one passenger's husband does anything, her internal monologue suspects infidelity ("Jim never has a second cup of coffee at home"). The flight controllers' screens don't show radar, they show pong.

At times, the comedy is beautifully subversive. A little boy gets to meet the pilots, and Captain Oveur asks him odd questions - whether he's ever been in a cockpit, has he seen a grown man naked, if he likes gladiator films... A passenger who asks for light reading is offered a leaflet, "Famous Jewish Sports Legends." Two black men speak "jive" - subtitles convey the meaning of words like "shiiiit" ("golly").

I'm a tough critic of comedy because the early ZAZ films (and some others) set pretty high standards. I am not a nostalgic old fogey thinking all movies were better in my youth. I simply believe that a comedy is supposed to (a) commit to its theme, (b) make you actually laugh throughout the film, and (c) deliver the jokes well. So many recent "comedies" stumble and fail at one or all of those.

On point (a), film reviews describe major deviations from theme: "Date Movie" has lengthy "The Lord of the Rings" jokes, "Epic Movie" riffs on "Borat" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," while "Superhero Movie" mocks "Mission Impossible" and "The Girl Next Door." These parodies extensively invoke anything recent to get a laugh.

"Meet the Spartans" can keep to theme with long jokes on "300" and "Spartacus," but what else does it use? "Transformers," "Spider Man 3," and a Britney Spears snafu at the 2007 Video Music Awards. How desperate and shoddy!

As to point (b), I need no specific examples to say: many modern comedies are unbalanced. There's lots of dead space, with some funny jokes at the beginning. They lose steam as they go on. Other comedies (especially the spoofs) generate only some chuckles throughout the running time; for a movie promising humor, that's unacceptable.

What's disturbing about the modern trend is that the "Airplane!" team is involved. "Superhero Movie" and half the "Scary Movie" franchise involve at least one of the ZAZ crew. You may not expect the latest flicks to be as funny as their 80's work, but the new stuff is mostly awful. Really, "Superhero" got 14-33% in aggregated reviews.

Admittedly, I've only seen 1 & 1/2 of the the above movies ("half" because I was too tired to find the remote), and "Scary Movie 3" was actually a gut-buster (go figure). However, the Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes results are brutal - the low scores also include the "Scary Movie" installments, "Date Movie," "Meet the Spartans," & "Epic Movie."[On Rotten, 53-15% for the "SM" series, 6% for "DM," 2% for "MtS" and "EM."]

Since I avoided the new stuff, I'm only now wondering why quality has declined. My belief: "Airplane!" feels like its makers took a plot and filled it with humor, while new parodies feel like they took jokes and filled in some plot. Because the humor doesn't further the narrative, removing the comedy from "Airplane!" would still leave it with a complete (and "decent") story.

Also - and most importantly - the jokes in "Airplane!" are really funny. Since this review sometimes attacks all modern comedy, let me provide a non-spoof example: Judd Apatow might not be perfect, but all his films have at least a dozen solid jokes, as well as actual stories.

I doubt you've missed "Airplane!" - if so, it's a must see. This movie is a home run, and makes lesser films all the more painful. We need to find a better way to laugh!

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