Pedro Almodóvar, 90 mins, 15

Jonathan Romney on I’m So Excited! Just show me the emergency exits, please

If you’re hoping Pedro Almodóvar’s latest is a return to his early, trashy comedies, buckle up for a bumpy ride

Every film-maker is allowed the occasional lapse. Even in the loftiest pantheons of auteurdom, they’ve all messed up once or twice – Fellini, Bergman, Michael Haneke, Michael Bay …. But Pedro Almodóvar has never made a bad film as such. There have been some that didn’t quite come off, some that were a bit same-old-same-old – Kika, Bad Education – but nothing shameful.

Till now. I’m So Excited! is unimaginably bad. Unimaginably, in that you can’t conceive of Almodóvar making anything so utterly graceless – an airline comedy so flabby it should have been called Bingo Wings.

You can only assume that Almodóvar, like Woody Allen in his time, got heartily sick of people watching his dark, sophisticated art-house dramas and saying they preferred the early, funny ones. In response, he’s made a facetious farce about a bunch of goofy characters on a transatlantic flight – Flakes on a Plane, as it were.

There are three camp flight attendants – one thin, two chubby – headed by Joserra (Javier Cámara), who at one point lip-synch to a Pointer Sisters song (hence the film’s English title; the original is Los amantes pasajeros, or Lovers in Flight). There are two butch pilots, in the mould spoofed by Peter Graves in the much funnier and cheekier Airplane!, who aren’t nearly as straight as they act. There’s a soap star escaping a problematic love life; a corrupt financier; a gauche, sex-starved psychic (the cheerfully watchable Lola Dueñas); and Norma Boss, a fearsome  ex-actress with an Anna Wintour bob (Cecilia Roth). There’s also an entire passenger list flying economy class who have been put to sleep with muscle relaxants – which seems a pretty lazy way for Almodóvar to spare himself writing too many characters. With the action mostly restricted to business class and cockpit, the film has the claustrophobic feel of a stage farce, or a studio-based sitcom.

In fact, there was a Scottish airline sitcom in the 1990s called The High Life, with Alan Cumming as a camp flight attendant whose catchphrase was “Oh dearie me!” (I suppose the Spanish equivalent would be “Ay! Dios mio!”). And that’s what Spain’s greatest living auteur has unwittingly ended up remaking. The result is less amusing than, say, an airborne Iberian Are You Being Served? (Joserra and his colleagues are essentially three John Inmans of the aisles).

The gags are as feeble as that suggests. Passenger: “I need a phone.” Flight attendant (mugging wildly): “You need to be blown?” I’m told this is already a well-worn pun in Spanish, and that the dialogue is jam-packed with such groaners, not that they survive subtitling.

Set almost entirely in mid-air, the plot involves an airliner flying into trouble en route to Mexico City. Because of problems with landing gear – desultorily set up in a throwaway prelude with Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz – the plane turns out to be endlessly circling Toledo. It’s the neatest joke here, undercutting the supposed glamour of transatlantic travel by pointing out that if an entire film is set in mid-air, it doesn’t much matter whether it’s happening over Toledo, Torremolinos or Torquay. But Almodóvar cops out with regard to unity of place, making a sudden digressive leap to ground level and the story of the soap star’s two girlfriends. This section comes across like an arbitrary left-over of another script that the director couldn’t bring himself to bin.

The mid-flight revelations might have been generated by some sort of Random Revelation software. The financier’s daughter is a dominatrix. Norma is also revealed as a dominatrix (one surprise dominatrix is amusing; two is sloppy). The sinister gent who looks like a Mexican hitman turns out to be just that (now, a roofing contractor or a lecturer in catering studies – that might have been interesting). Cocktails are spiked; mescalin is taken; sex is had by people both awake and comatose. 

I’ve seen it argued that I’m So Excited! is an acerbic comment on the Spanish economic crisis (Spain is the plane). Towards the end, there are haunting shots of a deserted (real-life) airport built in a notorious finance scam; and there’s nudging allusion to scandal in the very highest places (in case we haven’t got it, the characters make crown signs and stage-whisper “El Rey!”).

Almodóvar’s early comedies were genuinely provocative – from the pugnacious, polysexual trashola of Pepi, Luci, Bom … to his ebullient pastiches of bourgeois farce, such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I’m So Excited! simply comes across as a feeble attempt to do early Almodóvar by someone who’s lost his sense of humour in his long journey to red-carpet eminence. The real shame is how elegant the thing looks, with its sleek design and boiled-sweet colour scheme, in contrast to the threadbare humour. You want to know how joyless it is? In Woody Allen terms, it’s Almodóvar’s Hollywood Ending, his Curse of the Jade Scorpion, his Cassandra’s Dream. Sorry Pedro, but I preferred your sombre, weird, Baroque mid-period ones.

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