As they’ve matured and deepened over the years, Pedro Almodóvar’s films have also grown darker: within the noirish stylings of Broken Embraces and the quasi-horror of The Skin I Live In, his two most recent offerings, lie some of the blackest recesses of his filmography.
It has led some, not least the director himself, to ask what ever happened to the light-hearted Almodóvar? To all those crazy junkie nuns, desperate housewives and other creations who once made us laugh so much? To all those earlier, funnier ones?
And so we have I’m So Excited, heralded as his first straight-up comedy since Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown 25 years ago. From its 1980s videogame-tinged opening titles, camper-than-camp characters — led by a trio of bitching male flight attendants — and lip-synched interludes, it’s an unashamedly self-conscious attempt to lighten up and relive past glories. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have a serious side — or that it’s so easy to turn back the clock.
The setting is a Peninsula Airlines (tail-fin abbreviation “Pe”) flight to Mexico City where all is not well. A lapse by the ground crew — shown in a prologue featuring Pe herself, Penélope Cruz, and Antonio Banderas hamming it up adopting Andalusian accents in two quick cameos — means the landing gear is unable to open and the plane is now circling the skies above Toledo waiting to make an emergency landing. In economy class, they’ve all been sedated, but up front in business, the threat of imminent death is prompting an outpouring of manic behavior and public confessions.
Up in the cockpit the pilots (Antonio de la Torre and Hugo Silva) question their sexuality, while further back a mystic (Lola Dueñas) frets about losing her virginity; a failed actress and singer-turned-dominatrix (Cecilia Roth) fears a plot against her; a philandering actor (Guillermo Toledo) tries to resolve his love life; a corrupt businessman (José Luis Torrijo) yearns to find his estranged daughter; a Mexican “security consultant” ponders his next move; while a pair of newlyweds (Miguel Ángel Silvestre and Laya Martí) sleep, self-medicate, have sex and sleep some more.
There are nods to recent corruption scandals — from Bankia to Gürtel
It all makes for a very silly and frequently very funny journey. As if anxious we might take any of it too seriously, Almodóvar opts to open with a disclaimer warning that nothing we’re about to witness resembles reality. It’s tantamount to an order to sit back, relax and, please, just go with the contrivances of a surreal ride where a phone fallen into a passing bike’s basket can unite a man’s ex-lovers, a cockpit becomes a social hangout, and air stewards are prone to break out into lip-synched routines of Pointer Sisters classics.
That camp cabin crew trio, hilariously played by Javier Cámara, Carlos Areces and Raúl Arévalo, are the soul of a movie that seeks to celebrate pleasure in all its forms — mental, chemical, sexual… The actors seemingly instructed to steal every scene from each other (for my money, the lesser-known Areces, star of Alex de la Iglesias’ Sad Trumpet Ballad, wins by a late frisson), the threesome confront their potential demise by dancing, drinking and screwing, paving the way to a mid-air orgy as the passengers, dosed up on their mescaline-spiked Buck’s Fizz, pair up to join the mile-high club.
Beyond this, there’s also a dose of morality for crisis-hit Spain. The unburdening of secrets is the cue for a reflection on the damage done by the lies endemic in everyday life, and the film includes nods to recent Spanish corruption scandals — from the Bankia bailout to the Gürtel graft case and white elephant airports without any planes. At the center of it all is Torrijo’s Señor Mas, a savings bank owner embroiled in a corruption case for whom a path to redemption is reserved.
It’s a character arc that even for an artist as non-judgmental as Almodóvar smacks of unabashed wish-fulfillment. Ultimately, this is all about the director letting his hair down. We’re used to Almodóvar taking us to places no other filmmaker can. But this, set in the confines of a business-class cabin, only able to skim over the lives of its multitudinous cast, feels more aloof than perhaps any of his previous films, bordering on cookie-cutter self-pastiche.
It succeeds on its own terms as pure entertainment — no easy feat in itself. But those of us who’ve never stopped enjoying those later, darker ones will be hoping it won’t be too long before he’s back taking us places of which other directors cannot even dream.