`Soul Plane' touches down in all-too-familiar territory

A smooth takeoff hurt by turbulence of stereotypes


May 28, 2004|By Gene Seymour | Gene Seymour,NEWSDAY



Watching Soul Plane is like being stranded at a roadside cocktail lounge in an abandoned industrial park. It's the middle of the week. It's happy hour. The jokes, like the beer and popcorn, start out fresh enough. But they get stale and flat before the hour is up.

Such a dreary tableau sounds more pregnant with possibility than most of Soul Plane, which starts out as an amiable send-up of black enterprise before stumbling into the familiar blender of diced stereotypes, pureed sexual innuendo and controlled substances.

The movie, like most movies these days, comes across as if it's still being pitched to the studio. Suppose, the pitch goes, a working-class African-American (comic Kevin Hart, all teeth and earnestness) has a welcome- to-my-nightmare experience with a major airline in which he's stuck in a toilet while watching his dog get sucked into a fuselage.

So anyway, the brother sues the airline and collects a $100 million settlement. He decides to use the money to establish his own airline called, NWA. (His name's Nashawn Wade, OK?) It's an airline that's so geared to the black community's needs that there's a Roscoe's chicken-and-waffles franchise in its terminal, along with a 99-cent store.

The NWA plane is big and bouncy. So is the potty- mouthed security crew (Mo'nique, Sommore). The pilot, one Captain Mack (Snoop Dogg), does his most expert flying with illegal stimulants.

And it seems as if every passenger has sex on the brain, whether it's a blind man (John Witherspoon), who gets off on sticking his hand in a baked potato, or Mr. Hunkee, patriarch of the only white family on board the plane's maiden flight. (Tom Arnold assumes the head Hunkee role with his characteristic mix of good sportsmanship and shrewd self-abasement.)

With a gag machine as shamelessly raunchy as this, aesthetic judgment is bum-rushed by sociological observation. Contemporary consensus nervousness over Arab airline passengers is literally jumped on and, then, almost as an afterthought, smoothed over. A few men with priest's collars are rushed into an impromptu parade of gay stereotypes. And when Hunkee's sultry teen daughter (Arielle Kebbel) makes goo-goo eyes at a personable seat mate, Arnold-as-dad grumps, "Watch it, Kobe! That's my little girl!"

If "Soul Plane" were worth thinking about, those are the kinds of things you'd probably think about.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Soul Plane

Starring Kevin Hart, Snoop Dogg, Tom Arnold, Mo'Nique

Directed by Jessy Terrero

Rated R (Strong sexual content, language and some drug use)

Released by MGM

Time 86 minutes

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