Flashy production design can't save "Soul Plane" from crashing and burning in a debris field strewn with stereotypes and raunch. Director Jessy Terrero steps up from the music video ranks to make his feature debut, but he's flying strictly cargo class with this crass, unfunny attempt at an urbanized version of "Airplane!"
Falling far short of that 1980 Jerry Zucker-Jim Abrahams-David Zucker parody in terms of laughs and saddled with a woefully thin script by Bo Zenga and Chuck Wilson, the movie relies on a steady stream of cameos and visual jokes to pad its way to feature length. Its skewed view of black culture, presumably meant to satirize, instead pigeonholes African Americans by focusing on sex and drugs.
The movie's major malfunction, however, is that it's just not very funny. Long before its midway point it loses comic altitude, settling for increasingly vulgar jokes and making desperate stabs at humor by insulting Arabs and gays.
Kevin Hart plays Nashawn Wade, who grew up in the shadow of LAX dreaming of airplanes, but experiences a nasty case of mistreatment while flying and wins a $100-million settlement against the carrier. Nashawn takes the money and starts Nashawn Wade Airlines (NWA -- get it?) with the goal of appealing to the African American traveler. With more attitude than smarts, Nashawn and his cousin Muggsy (Method Man) launch the new venture with a maiden flight from L.A. to New York.
The passengers and Nashawn's new employees, including an overeager security force led by comedian Mo'Nique, gather at LAX's new Malcolm X Terminal -- an over-the-top, sensory-assaultive emporium featuring Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n' Waffles, Footlocker, a 99-cents store and a street basketball court complete with a chain net.
Conspicuous among the throng are Elvis Hunkee (Tom Arnold), his girlfriend Barbara (Missi Pyle), nymphet daughter Heather (Arielle Kebbel) and hip-hop obsessed teenage son Billy (Ryan Pinkston of "Punk'd") who got bumped from another airline. The Hunkees' main role in the movie seems to be to exploit a one-note joke based on white people's presumed fascination with black sexuality.
Once in the air, NWA's sparkling metallic purple jet, loaded with chrome trim, hydraulics and custom tires, and looking like it could cruise Crenshaw Boulevard on a Sunday night, is guided by the woefully undertrained pilot hired by Muggsy, Capt. Mack (Snoop Dogg). The good captain is more interested in an herbal high than a safe altitude and quickly engages the autopilot and goes on continental cruise control.
Divided into first-class and low-class sections with an incredibly large dance floor up top, the plane is essentially a disco in the sky. In first class, the passengers sit in large leather seats and enjoy Cristal and duck while the low-class passengers are served malt liquor and Popeye's fried chicken from the box, the overhead bins are coin-operated lockers and people in the very back stand the entire flight holding onto subway straps.
Terrero's directing starts off promisingly enough with some distinct style early in the film, but once things get airborne, the movie's tone drifts haphazardly from slapstick to earnestness and even lapses into melodrama as Nashawn tries to reconnect with his lost love Giselle (K.D. Aubert). If any of this had a point, there might be reason to look beyond the broad missteps, but "Soul Plane's" sheer obliviousness makes the 2002 hit "Barbershop" seem as if it were written by August Wilson.
MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content, language and some drug use
Times guidelines: Most of the vulgarities are of the verbal variety
Kevin Hart...Nashawn Wade
Tom Arnold...Elvis Hunkee
Snoop Dogg...Capt. Mack
Released by MGM. Director Jessy Terrero. Producer David Scott Rubin, Jessy Terrero. Executive producers Paul Hall, Bo Zenga. Screenplay by Bo Zenga & Chuck Wilson. Cinematographer Jonathan Sela. Editor Michael R. Miller. Costume designer Shawn Barton. Music RZA. Production designer Robb Buono. Art director Jeff Wallace. Set decorator Tracey Doyle. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
In general release.