It’s not surprising that Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, I’m So Excited!, is being billed as a return to the erotically obsessed, anything-goes antics that propelled the Spanish director’s early camp-fests.
But at 63, Almodovar isn’t looking to repeat his own cinematic past, even if his compatriots might wish to rewind the last several years that gave rise to Spain’s current financial straits.
I’m So Excited!, a comic melodrama set aboard a transatlantic airline flight on which clothes are shed, much tequila is consumed and sexual partners are enthusiastically exchanged, could be seen as Almodovar’s contemporary version of the Hollywood musicals that provided escapist diversion during the Great Depression.
“That comparison enchants me,” said the director, relaxed and affable over lunch in Hollywood.
But though his new film is, on one level, a breezy sex farce that spends much of its time with its head literally in the clouds, some of those clouds have opaque interiors. When the plane, en route from Madrid to Mexico City, develops a serious problem with its landing gear, the pilots are forced to prepare for an emergency landing.
Meanwhile, three male flight attendants do their best to keep the passengers happy and distracted by any means necessary, including a lip-syncing, lip-smacking rendition of the Pointer Sisters’ pop tune that supplies the title.
Although Spain’s economic crisis is barely mentioned directly, it is evoked through verbal references and sly visual allusions that turn the voyage at 9000m into a Chaucerian microcosm of contemporary Spanish society.
“For example, there is a close-up that I didn’t want to allow to go on for very long, because it would turn it into a joke, of a newspaper article about the 10 most important financial scandals of recent months. And all of them are real,” Almodovar said in Spanish.
“So this current moment in Spanish society is filtered through this plane. When reality sneaks into a light comedy, I always welcome it.”
Connoisseurs of his career may welcome it too. After his previous feature, the unnerving Frankenstein fable The Skin I Live In left some viewers chilled, the farcical I’m So Excited! puts Almodovar back on the terra firma of sophisticated, character-driven situational comedy.
The movie, which has opened in Spain, has done well with audiences and most critics, despite an excoriating notice from Spain’s leading newspaper, El Pais, which lambasted what it called the movie’s “infantile” and “scatological” humour.
Other critics have suggested the comedy is just the sort of movie the Iberian Peninsula, if not the entire planet, could use right now. A few minutes into I’m So Excited! the audience understands a tragic outcome probably isn’t on the cards for the troubled airliner. And let’s just say that as an orchestrator of spine-tingling terror and suspense, Almodovar is no “master of disaster” Irwin Allen.
On the other hand, the pilots’ ribald cockpit exchanges in I’m So Excited! may remind you of similar off-colour bantering between Peter Graves and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980 disaster-film spoof Airplane!
The movie’s screwball plot is stocked with familiar Almodovarian archetypes — the phlegmatic porn star, the taciturn assassin, the guilt-ridden middle- aged man of means — who get shaken up, cocktail fashion, by the story’s increasingly wild revelations.
The director said when he began writing the screenplay he only had scenarios and no fully developed characters. As he began to tease out the plot threads, with feedback from his brother, Agustin, the characters and their individual histories began to take wing.
“When I started to write the movie, it was going to take place 50 per cent in the sky and 50 per cent on the ground. Later I came to be interested more in developing the situation in the plane and of the consequent catharsis of the characters.”
With more than a dozen characters, several minor parts and a number of non-speaking extras the film has one of the biggest, most diverse ensembles Almodovar has worked with. The cast includes accomplished Mexican leading man Jose Maria Yazpik and, in two small but plot-essential roles, Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, both previous collaborators with the director.
“It was very exciting to me and it also gave me a little bit of panic,” Almodovar said. “They all came from different schools.
They came from television, where they had a lot of success, or from the world of very underground comedy. But I believe the mix worked well. They were generous to each other; they liked working together.”
Javier Camara, who plays one of the libidinous yet solicitous flight attendants, said Almodovar was highly demanding and always knew exactly what he wanted from his actors.
“I liked watching him get to know each of the actors and to see what is he going to be able to get out from each of them,” said Camara, who was in the director’s 2002 drama Talk to Her.
Camara said his character and those of the two other flight attendants (Carlos Areces and Raul Arevalo) functioned almost as a single character, albeit with distinct personality traits and dialogue.
He said Almodovar managed to mix and match those elements, much as his design did with the baby-blue and tangerine colour scheme devised for the make-believe Peninsula Airlines.
“Over the course of 19 movies or 20 he learnt how to do this,” Camara said.
Like most of the director’s films, I’m So Excited! is conscious of its artificiality and takes pleasure in playing with the audience’s expectations about character, narrative logic and psychological motivation. Characteristically, it also takes place in a tight theatrical space from which there is no immediate escape.
But like the high-tech home prison in The Skin I Live In or the apartment in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, where Banderas holds Victoria Abril captive, the cabin of Peninsula flight 2549 becomes a humanistic space where intimate interpersonal contact and surprising emotional connections can occur — because of, rather than despite, the bizarre surroundings.
The end of Spain’s financial crisis might be a long way off. But facing up to your deepest fears in the company of empathetic strangers wasn’t a bad place to start solving bigger problems, Almodovar suggested.
“All these contrary characters, the best way they have of dealing with fear and uncertainty is really to integrate themselves, each one with the other. This is the best form of help that they could have.”I’m So Excited opens on September 19.