Pedro Almodóvar’s late career is revealing him to be a contemporary Alfred Hitchcock. For those whose perception of the Spanish director is filtered through his campy, punk-y early work, that may come as a surprise. But no other director working today has such a command of form, also Hitchcock’s true artistic medium. Hitchcock deployed his talent for pacing, timing and suspense in the service of the horror genre, though his films were leavened with comedic passages. Almodóvar displays the same control over the heartbeat of his films, and his nominal comedies all have tragic, horrifying premises. His latest, I’m So Excited!, is another of these tragicomedies masquerading as a farce, and it marks a return to form for one of the greatest directors working today.
Its premise is not unlike a Hitchcock classic — Rope or Strangers on a Train — but inverted and in the air. In fact, its Spanish title, Los amantes pasajeros, could equally have been translated as Rakes on a Plane. Though he consistently nods to the current economic crisis rending Spanish society apart, Almodovar cares more about a well-executed farce than a timely piece of commentary. He’s more interested in narrative uplift, and his airplane comedy delivers that in spades. I’m So Excited! is a return to form, a maturation of his distinctive style, and a thoroughly enjoyable romp in the sky.
Almodovar’s recent films have all been tonally dark. Beginning with the moving and masterful All About My Mother, he deftly slipped serious dramatic conceits into the color-saturated Iberian demi-monde of homosexuals, drag queens and junkies he’d become known for. The melancholic streak continued through Bad Education, a semiautobiographical fantasia that featured Gael Garcia Bernal in drag riding a comatose biker, up through Volver, Broken Embraces and The Skin I Live In, rather slight, personal dramas which nevertheless showcased the strength of the Iberian film industry, as populated by Almodovar and his cast of regulars including cameos by international stars Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas. The two show up in I’m So Excited! in hasty but crucial cameos, as a couple working as ground crew in the Madrid airport whose mishaps set up the conflict for our cast in the air.
The trouble: the landing gear on flight 2549 from Spain to Mexico City doesn’t work, and no one’s sure if they’ll live past whatever jerry-rigged touchdown they can concoct. While captain and co-pilot (Antonio de la Torre and Hugo Silva, respectively) circle Toledo waiting for ground control to figure out how to save them, flight attendants (Javier Camara, Raul Arevalo and Carlos Areces) take matters on-board into their own hands. First off, they drug all the economy class passengers and set themselves to tending to the last moments of their business class travelers. There are only seven, so we get to know them all: the dominatrix, the clairvoyant, the mysterious Mexican, a just-married couple, a lecherous wealthy man and, apparently a Spanish stereotype these days, a financier fleeing the country.
The close quarters, fixed number of characters, and element of danger introduced in the first act all point to an affinity with Hollywood 40s screwball comedies — an influence cited for this film. But it’s still classic Almodovar: to calm their nerves and heighten the dramatic tension, the three flight attendants lubricate their passengers with increasing amounts of tequila. They then ratchet up to a more potent brew, Valencian Water (a mixture of champagne, gin, vodka and orange juice laced with mescaline that was apparently a fashionable drink in Spain’s swinging 1980s). The drugs and alcohol, mixed with the revelation of their impending doom — chief steward Joserra (Javier Camara) cannot tell a lie, as a result of an earlier workplace trauma, and spills the beans about the faulty landing gear — get everyone to put their seats in a confessional, then missionary position.
Joserra’s already been paying his captain visits in the cockpit for some time. But after the flight attendants perform a lip-synch sequence of the Poynter Sister’s “I’m So Excited!” — the source of the rather inapt English title — everyone’s inhibitions lower, as do their pants. Even the virgin clairvoyant gets into the swing of things, as she can sense the impeding death. She ventures back into the economy section for her pick of the hottest drugged hunks she can take.
The campy, doting flight attendants can seem like a throw-back to earlier gay stereotypes of simpering, foolish comedic figures. But in Almodovar’s hands, such tropes are rendered loving. If it’s probable that everything’s going to shit, what better response to imminent doom is there than to make sure everyone’s having a good time? In Almodovar’s world, the gay sensibility comes to save the day.
The performances Almodovar elicits are well-tempered and touching. Celia Roth is especially strong as a glamorous dominatrix. But the lesson Almodovar seems to want us to draw about Spain and its current troubles is so slight that it’s barely necessary as an addition. We’d watch him put on this show anyway. He reverts to his classic themes, sex and death, and though they’re not particularly new and he doesn’t succeed in uncovering any new insights, there’s a reason why most of human art has been preoccupied with these two concerns. Almodovar shows his strengths — comedy, color, timing, good roles for women, light — to be still in fine form, and the whole endeavor is an enjoyable romp through the clouds with an old familiar friend.
I’m So Excited!’s 90 minutes don’t feel long, especially given Almodovar’s trademark 1000 wpm line readings, all delivered with the exacting diction of an elegant Madrid madam. The laughs don’t come strong either, but that seems fine. The whole film is a pleasant exercise, and it signals a welcome pivot in his career. Almodovar is now rightly recognized as one of the leading artists of world cinema, and certainly the most significant Spanish director since Buñuel, another surrealist. While the title might overstate audience anticipation, I’m So Excited! should be welcomed by anyone in the mood for an adult, enjoyable comedy.
I’m So Excited! opens in limited theatrical release starting June 28, 2013.
The Upside: Almodovar shows his strengths — comedy, color, timing, good roles for women, light — to be still in fine form; the whole endeavor is an enjoyable romp through the clouds with an old familiar friend
The Downside: The lesson Almodovar seems to want us to draw about Spain and its current troubles is so slight that it’s barely necessary as an addition; some may find the proceedings overtly slight
On The Side: Along with the already mentioned cameos in the film Pedro Almodovar’s brother, Agustín Almodóvar, makes his usual appearance as well.