I’m So Excited is Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s twentieth feature film as writer and director, and in some ways represents a second creative childhood. The first was in the early 1980s when, following the death in 1975 of Francisco Franco and his Fascist censoring of all culture, Almodóvar rose to cultish notoriety in Spain with farces like Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom (1980) and Labyrinth of Passion (1982), whose polyphonies of sex, drugs and the grotesque were revelatory. Reminiscent of these earlier films, I’m So Excited is a sex comedy with an ambition that seems rather Greek: to provoke cathartic laughter in the audience, as a group of stock characters face death up in the air, in a faulty plane. Here, though, some thirty years down the track, it all feels decidedly flabby around the edges.
The film starts promisingly enough, inter-titles assuring that ‘everything that happens in this film is fiction and fantasy and bears no relation to reality,’ before a 60s-inspired credit sequence opens onto Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas (regular Almodóvar muses) as bumbling, smitten ground crew. We enter the plane and quickly realise that the opening disclaimer was all a ruse: a close up of a passenger’s newspaper reads, ‘Guardian Bank Intervention Imminent’ and ‘This Year’s Top 10 Financial Scandals.’ Perhaps for Spanish audiences the most stingingly specific socio-economic reference in the film is to ‘La Mancha airport’, which passengers call ‘a complete swindle’ and obviously refers to the Ciudad Real Airport outside Madrid that was privately built for over €1 billion, operated for 3 years until 2012 and now sits disused.
I’m So Excited alludes to Spain’s current economic woes, but it does so within an absurdly crisp, almost hyper-real mise-en-scène populated by a bevy of unreal characters. Chief of the caricatures is the Chief Steward (played superbly by Javier Cámara) – a loose-lipped compulsive drinker – who is surrounded by two other über-gay stewards, a bi-sexual captain, a psychic virgin, a famous aging porn star, a hit man and the head of an investment bank. (Economy Class is mostly absent because, we’re told, they were put to sleep ‘to prevent Economy Class Syndrome’.) Needless to say, things get pretty silly; Spain’s real world problems filtered through the luridly coloured cloth of farce.
But, having established a level of absurdity, the film then veers wildly off course once the passengers are informed that the plane might crash upon landing, killing them all. The passengers begin making calls on the broken cabin phone to folks on the ground. First up is Ricardo (Guillermo Toledo). Unlike any of the calls that follow, here the film leaves the self-enclosed space of the plane and enters the (far less interesting) world in Madrid for a long sequence involving Ricardo’s hot young ex-girlfriend, Ruth (Blanca Suárez), coinciding with his current, suicidal girlfriend, Alba (Paz Vega). This section has zero impact on the story that follows; in fact, Ricardo is basically dropped from the film like a hot tortilla as soon as he hangs up the phone. Sloppily realised and narratively inert, this section interrupts and irrevocably confuses the tone of the film.
The feeling of dead-air inspired by the sequence in Madrid is compounded when we’re back inside the exuberant plane and, not too long after, the stewards are spiking Valencia cocktails with mescaline and performing a Busby Berkley-style rendition of I’m So Excited (the film’s high point). As the stewards see it: ‘We have to entertain them so they don’t think.’ Once the mescaline hits the film descends into pure sex farce, and complete silliness.
To be fair, farce and the absurd are perhaps the hardest, most subjective of all genres of comedy to appraise; not least of all because its tambour is often so wedded to how well it captures the zeitgeist of a particular time and place. So, while I’m So Excited alludes specifically to the current socio-economic moment in Spain, the potency of the farce felt (to this Anglo-Aussie at least) outdated – a bit like Carry On Flying.
Ricardo says at one point: ‘We’re flying around aimlessly and we still don’t know where or how to land.’ This is a metaphor for the ongoing socio-economic crisis of Spain, but, ironically, it also sums up the experience of watching the film. For while I can defend its value as a carnivalesque lampooning of sociocultural taboos – creating a topsy-turvy world of Bacchic revelry in the sky – that would be an entirely cerebral response to a film that aims for a bodily one: laughter. In the end, did it make me laugh in the face of simulated death? No, not nearly enough.
Kate Harper studied cinema at the University of Melbourne. She is a freelance writer and film reviewer for ABC Radio.