Longtime Pedro Almodovar followers who have secretly been hankering for a return to the broad, transgressive comedy of his early work will be thrilled by “I’m So Excited,” a hugely entertaining, feelgood celebration of human sexuality that unfolds as a cathartic experience for characters, auds and helmer alike. Uniquely Almodovar’s own, the pic is as light and airy as the skies in which it’s set, but its failure to break new ground may leave auds feeling they’ve seen some of this before, done better. That said, the globally presold pic could ironically win new converts to the Almodovar cause.
Following a short runway scene with cameos from Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas as a couple of airport workers (the cast reunites thesps from all phases of the helmer’s career), the action moves 10,000 feet up, into an airplane packed with neurotics that is apparently Mexico-bound, but has a technical problem. Squeezed into slightly overstretched uniforms, a trio of swishy male flight attendants keep the banter lively: Joserra (Javier Camara), a high-strung motormouth incapable of telling a lie; skinny tequila- and tablet-fueled Ulloa (Raul Arevalo); and the overweight and repressed Fajas (Carlos Areces), who carries with him a portable altar at which he prays for passengers’ souls.
Most of the fun happens in business class, since those traveling in economy have been given a sleeping drug — a nice metaphor for the way Spanish politics uses the media to placate its people. Passengers include Bruna (Lola Duenas), a sexually hung-up psychic with a particular ability for sensing death, and Norma Boss (Cecilia Roth, whose first Almodovar appearance was in his debut, 33 years ago), a former actress who is now a dominatrix for Spain’s political class. Also onboard are soap star Galan (Guillermo Toledo), corrupt businessman Mas (Jose Luis Torrijo) and Mexican hitman Infante (Jose Maria Yazpik).
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Just as he did in 1988’s “Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown,” Almodovar packs a motley crew into a cramped space, zooms in on their winsome idiosyncrasies, and watches what happens. When it emerges that the plane’s undercarriage is malfunctioning and an emergency landing will have to be attempted, the attendants decide to keep spirits up by lacing the passengers’ drinks with mescaline, and performing a comically choreographed version of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited,” a song that aptly gives the spirited pic its English-language title. When the drugs kick in, sexual barriers fall and a liberating orgy ensues.
A pre-credits panel states that the film bears absolutely no relation to anything factual, which means of course that it does. Rest assured, all this Rabelaisian comedy serves a darker purpose, especially with Spain and much of the rest of the West in economic turmoil: The name of the airline is “Peninsula,” and while the metaphor of the Iberian peninsula as a crippled airplane may not be subtle, it works just fine.
Almodovar’s early work was first seen in the context of a socially uptight country, and in some scenes there is the sense that the world has overtaken the director’s sense of humor — except perhaps for one moment that takes “There’s Something About Mary’s” hair-gel gag to a shockingly hilarious level.
Spanish corruption in politics and business is targeted through the figures of Mas and Norma (the latter claims to have video recordings of Spain’s 600 most important people engaging in bondage). The satire is cutting, but ultimately forgiving of Spaniards’ tendency to ignore their woes by simply choosing to have a good time.
As ever, Almodovar’s focus is mostly on the female and gay characters. The hand-picked cast reps a selection of the top end of Spanish acting talent. Of the preening flight attendants, it is Areces, practically incapable of appearing onscreen without inspiring smiles, who stands out (the hairstyling department deserves special mention for giving Fajas a lock of stray hair that seems to have a life of its own).
A potential problem for international auds is the pic’s wordiness. “Excited” revels in rapid-fire gossip and double entendres, and some — along with the many Spanish references — are inevitably lost in translation.
But the film is not without visual pleasures. The interior of the plane looks hyper-real with its attractive combination of lucid blues and intense reds. On occasion the action returns to earth, where a psychologically disturbed artist’s studio is laugh-aloud funny, but so beautifully conceived and lit as to be breathtaking at the same time.
Late in the film, a remarkable sequence juxtaposes the sounds of a plane coming noisily to ground with sweeping shots of the vast, silent interior of a deserted airport. The fact that this airport actually exists, completed but unused as the result of corruption, is another knowing wink to local auds.
The tech crew is largely composed of Almodovar stalwarts, with Alberto Iglesias’ score drawing on classic cinema suspense tropes to comically bathetic effect, while d.p. Jose Luis Alcaine squeezes the maximum from the inevitably restricted palettes available to him.