More than any film I’ve ever seen, “Soul Plane” is clearly one comedy sketch idea, stretched out to feature length. Someone in the “Saturday Night Live” (or, more likely, “In Living Color”) writers’ room might have pitched the sketch this way: “What if there were an airline run by, and made for, black people?”
It practically writes itself! The plane would be pimped-out with spinning gold rims on the landing gear! When a jet full of white people pulls up next to it on the runway, the white jet would instinctively lock all its doors! In coach class, instead of distributing individual meals, they would just pass around a bucket of Popeye’s chicken! (Naturally, only black people can make these jokes. If a white person suggested that African-Americans were fond of fried chicken, they’d be in serious trouble.)
I’m not saying these jokes aren’t funny; I’m just saying that if you’re plugged into black culture, you could come up with them yourself. But too bad for you, someone beat you to it — director Jessy Terrero and writers Chuck Wilson and Bo Zenga, all experienced in behind-the-scenes work in movies, but making their debuts in these capacities.
And they’ve made a movie that is uneven, but often very funny. It recalls, at times, the anarchy of “Airplane!” (not to mention that movie’s plot), and it impressively covers the entire length and depth of its premise. No aspect of air travel is left un-hip-hopped or un-blinged.
It has an unfortunately obnoxious central character, Nashawn Wade (Kevin Hart), who wins $100 million in a settlement against an airline and uses it to start his own. He calls it NWA, and if you don’t know why that’s funny, then trust me, you won’t know why ANY of this is funny.
On NWA’s inaugural flight from L.A. to JFK (or “from the 310 to the 212,” as the captain puts it), one white family stumbles on board. They are the Hunkees (pronounced more like “Honky,” of course), led by Tom Arnold as the befuddled single dad flying with his slutty teenage daughter Heather (Arielle Kebbel) and brainy younger son Billy (Ryan Pinkston), and with his hot new girlfriend Barbara (Missi Pyle).
The family has a little plot arc, but it is irrelevant compared to the central shenanigans, which involve a pot-smoking captain (Snoop Dogg, type-cast yet again) and the various African-American stereotypes who fill the seats. You have a horny couple attempting to have sex in a variety of locales; a blind man who flirts with all the women and fingers a baked potato; your various playas and gangstas and ghetto-fabulous trash and so on. The first-class lounge features Cristal champagne and other accoutrements; the “low-class” section is a graffiti-heavy block party; upstairs, there’s a disco.
Some bits are funny and some aren’t, and some resort too desperately to jokes involving bodily functions and sex acts — jokes that have been done before, and better, in other films.
When it spoofs black culture, though, the movie connects solidly. The writers and director possess a keen eye for how blacks are perceived by whites, as well as how blacks actually are — and how the two often overlap. I laughed a lot at Mo’Nique and Loni Love as the security checkpoint women who spend all their time rapping, talking about Denzel, or trash-talking the customers as they pass through the metal detectors. It’s useless to get offended by anything the movie does — the lisping, flouncing gay flight attendant, the joke where everyone is terrified of the Arab passenger, and so on — when it’s all done so gleefully and without apparent malice.
B- (1 hr., 26 min.; )