Plans have been unveiled to the press for the journey of the first nuclear powered bus in history. It will travel from New York to Denver non-stop, but even before it's set off, there are problems. The oil industry, concerned about loss of earnings, have set up a saboteur to halt the bus in its tracks, and the laboratory is blown up in a suspicious explosion, injuring the two drivers. The designer, Kitty Baxter (Stockard Channing), reluctantly asks an old flame, Dan Torrance (Joseph Bologna), if he will pilot the bus, but Torrance has been disgraced by a incident in his past - can he pull himself together and drive the bus to success?
Nowadays The Big Bus, which was written by producers Lawrence J. Cohen and Fred Freeman, lives in the shadow of Airplane. You can't mention this film without referring to the fact that it was a disaster movie spoof three years before the hit take-off of Airport movies, and that's a pity, because while this treads the same path, it's easily as funny, and in some parts, funnier than its more famous counterpart. A few people would have you believe The Big Bus is on the whole the more enjoyable film, but I wouldn't quite go that far.
The writers have obviously studied the likes of Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake to gather ammunition for their comedy. Ther hero is a man with a past, who has to redeem himself and win back his old girlfriend. What happened was that he was a driver in a coach accident and when they were left stranded, his co-driver ate all the passengers to stay alive. Torrance ate the bus, except for one night when, in a state of delirium, he tried the co-driver's stew and accidentally consumed a foot. "You eat one lousy foot," he laments, "and they call you a cannibal - what a world!"
The passengers on the bus are no less clichéd, and all the better for it. Sally Kellerman and Richard Mulligan play a warring couple on the brink of divorce who are still passionate about each other. Rene Auberjonois is a priest who has lost his faith, Ruth Gordon is a little old lady (what else?) who is escaping the drudgery of her home life, and Bob Dishy is a vet who has been banned for life and has lost his confidence. As in those disaster movies, the tragedy that befalls them helps them to find the courage to be what they want in life, well, except for Ruth Gordon, she stays a little old lady.
There is such a wealth of gags that if one joke doesn't come off, another one swiftly arrives to take its place, delivered with great expertise by a reliable cast. The mood is ridiculous throughout, and it works up a fine line in hilarity. For example, Torrance's co-driver on the big bus is Shoulders O'Brien (John Beck), who admits as the bus is about to pull away that he's called Shoulders because that's where he drives, and also that he's prone to blackouts - but only when the bus is moving. The mock serious tone is ideal, and there's some great dialogue: "Where's your god now old woman?!" demands the priest when he gets a window seat instead of the old lady. But really the film only exists to get to the next gag, which means not much story and an abrupt ending. Music by David Shire. Watch for the lounge bar piano player: "Six months to live!"