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Film review: I'm So Excited - There's nothing exciting about Pedro Almodóvar's zany sex comedy


About what, exactly? Having established himself as one of Europe's leading film-makers, Pedro Almodóvar has gone back to making the sort of zany sex comedy by which he first came to notice in the late 1980s.

I'm So Excited! is an airline farce that revives the mood, and the polychromatic design, of such raucous camp-fests as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Those exclamation marks look rather ominous now.) You may find it a puzzler. It's a bit like The Beatles deciding after Revolver to revert to the sweaty rock'n'roll they used to play in late-night Hamburg. We all know they could still do it, but what would be the point anymore?

It could be Almodóvar's answer to the times. His native Spain is so deeply in the mierda that he maybe felt determined to give moviegoers a lift. It's like Preston Sturges's message for America in Sullivan's Travels 72 years ago. A nation in the doldrums doesn't want a social-conscience picture ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), it wants the escapist fun of Mickey Mouse.

I'm So Excited! nails its colours to the tailfin with a title sequence of gaudy cheerfulness and a prologue involving a pair of airline employees fouling up the baggage transfer. That they are played in nod-and-a-wink cameos by Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas signals Almodóvar's intentions from the off: fasten your seatbelts and prepare for laughs. We'll see about that.

Onboard a plane from Madrid to Mexico City, the flight crew soon realise there's trouble down below. The undercarriage has been damaged and a crash-landing looks to be inevitable. A mood of gay abandon seizes the passengers, at least in Business, where they quaff mescaline-spiked cocktails and let their libido run wild.

A queenly horizontale recounts her bedroom encounters with famous men. A Don Juan tries to dump his unstable girlfriend by phone. A disgraced banker reads a newspaper story about the country's 10 biggest financial scams. And, defying all security procedure post-9/11, a woman with clairvoyant powers gets into the flight deck and starts rubbing the thighs of captain and co-pilot. (So that's why they call it a cockpit.) The three male cabin stewards go for it with tequila shots and sex in the loo, one of them managing to lure the married captain out of the closet. You may at times be reminded of the BBC sitcom The High Life.

Does hilarity ensue? I'm afraid it does not. The frantic ribaldry looks very old-hat, particularly in the context of Almodóvar's early work. A woman riding a stranger's crotch while he sleeps may have got chuckles at the script stage, but it looks limp in every sense on screen. Blowjobs and the aforementioned frottage aren't really giggle-worthy either.

The plot goes briefly earthbound as we follow the consequences of that Don Juan's recklessness: the lovely Ruth (Blanca Suárez) happens to catch the mobile phone of the lover (Paz Vega) whose botched suicide the film has randomly zoomed in upon. It's also sad to see Almodóvar plundering old tropes, such as halting the action so that the cabin stewards can handjive and lip-synch to the Pointer Sisters' hit from which the film derives its title. (In Spanish it's called Los Amantes Pasajeros.) They started this singalong routine in Wayne's World more than 20 years ago, and have been doing it to death ever since.

Meanwhile, the plane's entire economy class has been drugged to sleep while the aircraft flies around aimlessly. You won't have to look hard for a metaphor there. The people slumber while those in power pilot the nation towards disaster. There's also a bleak irony in the location, an abandoned airport that cost more than a billion euros to build in a city (Ciudad Real) that had no need of one. It's allegedly one of 17 in the country that is at present unused, and exemplifies the free-spending megalomania that has reduced Spain to its current predicament. Almodóvar, who grew up nearby, has decried its uselessness: "All you see are a couple of rabbits hopping along what is Spain's longest runway." (I'm surprised he didn't put them in the movie.) The story of the politicians and financiers who enabled this folly might make a good film.

Alas, the one we have isn't up to snuff. Almodóvar has said that when he began writing it the style he had in mind was American screwball comedy of the 1930s and 1940s, with lots of crowded scenes in tiny places. That's a fine precedent, and if the film were 10 times faster and about 40 times smarter it might have been achieved. The cast do their darnedest to make it work, though certain familiar faces (eg Javier Cámara and Lola Dueñas) may only incline you to think of the superior Almodóvar features in which they have appeared.

The paradox is that those films – Talk to Her, Volver and All about My Mother – are formally "serious" dramas, yet they all have lines and scenes in them funnier than anything in I'm So Excited!, a film that's actually pitched as a comedy. When the crew first understand the precariousness of their situation one of them asks the captain what they should do about the passengers: "Just keep them entertained and distracted," comes his answer. It's a laudable aim. Almodóvar, by his own high standards, has fallen way short of it here.