If you had the choice to either watch LeBron James play basketball as a sixth grader or watch him play basketball now, what would you choose? The novelty of watching twelve-year-old LeBron run up and down the court is alluring, but after about five minutes you’d realize that you were watching sixth graders play basketball. Sure, there’s signs of greatness, and plenty of swagger (because he’s LeBron and a naïve asshole) but you’d want the full package. Anyway, I’m So Excited is just like this, except applied to Pedro Almodóvar.
The last decade or so has seen Almodóvar reach the pinnacle of his profession. Starting with 1999’s All About My Mother and continuing through 2011’s The Skin I Live In, with the incredible Talk to Her and excellent Volver, as well as some others, in between, Almodóvar has to be in the conversation for best working writer-director. His films have a unique sensibility, always among the most colorful and sensual and without inhibition; he’s a gay man who first arrived on the scene during Movida-era Spain in the late ’70s and ’80s, a period that reacted strongly to the forces of Francoist repression in power until 1975. Out were forced piety and censorship, in were hedonism and doing whatever the fuck you wanted, and even though the flamboyance of ’80s Madrid has died down somewhat, Almodóvar hasn’t outgrown those days. We could always use more hedonistic free spirits and fewer Puritans, and to paraphrase a great line from Annie Hall, I love that Almodóvar is one of our most indulgent filmmakers. The result is a canon that is among the most frank about the wide and ever-surprising range of human sexuality and, since 1999, how our sexuality informs our relationships with our families and friends. It’s this second level that Almodóvar has added to his material, so that the transsexuals and gays and host of crazy people (who don’t have to be gay) who populate his movies to fuck and threaten each other transcend farce and instead become characters in a rich melodramatic tableaux. (Casting Penélope Cruz so frequently doesn’t hurt, either.) Almodóvar has achieved greatness through reviving the melodrama and allowing his absurdist characters room to actually love and relate to one another, rather than just fuck and yell.
I’m So Excited is just the fucking and the threatening. And that’s all well and good, but I’d like 2000s Almodóvar, not 1980s Almodóvar.
The jig is up pretty quick with I’m So Excited. A plane bound from Spain for Mexico (perdóname, México) has some trouble with the landing gear, thanks to some on-the-ground incompetence courtesy of the baggage handlers at the airport (played in a cameo by Cruz and Antonio Banderas, as if you needed any reminding it was an Almodóvar movie). Doomed instead to circle around La Mancha and attempt a risky landing instead of fly over the Atlantic, the crew and first class passengers (everybody in coach is already drugged and asleep) decide quickly that the best way to pass the time will be to avoid thinking about their possibile fates: It’s not long before the three flight attendants spike some mimosas with mescaline. Because this is an Almodóvar movie, almost all the guys are gay (even if they don’t realize it at first) and everybody’s a horndog. But the director establishes this within the first few minutes of the film; one of the first scenes of conversation involves a traveler who claims to be a mystic (Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas), who’s found her way into the cockpit. What’s on her mind? Oh, nothing beyond the fact that she’s a virgin who intends to pop her cherry on this very flight, and after accessing her psychic powers not with a crystal ball but by giving the two pilots simultaneous hand jobs, let’s just say that the tone is established.
It’s intended to be silly and absurd and also to shock, but by tipping his hand so early, everything that follows—that is, the entire film—loses its shock value. Everybody drinking straight from the bottle? Not as ridiculous as the double handie scene referenced above, where again, the conversation was entirely about sex (gay and straight). Getting it on the bathroom? Pretty standard fare. The virgin sneaking back to coach to mount an unassuming and still-passed-out passenger to get her rocks off? No more or less ridiculous than anything else in the film. The three gay flight attendants performing raunchy choreography to the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited”? Kinda funny, but I already knew they were gay, and this was far from the most stereotypically gay thing they did. I know Almodóvar was at least trying to flabbergast us from one later scene that was genuinely unexpected—let’s say it involves a blow job and then leaving a little icing on the cake—and because half the cast would register as a 7 on the Kinsey Scale, but if one sexual encounter out of a dozen succeeds in leaving me slack-jawed, that’s probably a weak batting average.
Almodóvar should know this; it’s when he’s been able to layer his absurdity and build exaggeration upon exaggeration that he’s made his best work. All About My Mother starts with a freak car accident, then a son with a transvestite for a dad, then a nun who gets pregnant: It just keeps getting more ridiculous, but Almodóvar infuses his story with the texture of family life and the theater, transforming a completely isolated story into something universal. This, I believe, is melodrama—highly-charged and targeting both our baser and basic natures, each revelation less plausible while still emotionally true. But I found little texture in I’m So Excited, which not only doubles down on the same joke but also fails to build upon its absurd foundation, because Almodóvar established up front just how absurd his movie would be. The element of surprise disappears in the process.
Almodóvar could have layered his story with some social commentary or some trademarks that would appear simpático with his recent work, but he left these efforts underdeveloped. Consider that Almodóvar has drawn more than a curtain between first class and coach. By leaving the coach travelers zonked, it’s as if he’s dramatizing the economic catastrophe—which has rocked Spain even harder than the US—of the last five years; most of us have been asleep or clueless while the rich people have fucked everything up, says he. That’s about the extent of Almodóvar’s thoughts on the matter, as best as I could tell. One of the first class passengers, a corrupt financier, has the catalán name “Mas,” a name shared by the head of the Catalonian government. It’s a detail that would seem purposeful, but I couldn’t discern what Almodóvar was suggesting, if anything, especially because this Señor Mas, other than some of the crew members, was the most sympathetic of the supposedly crass and unethical group. Another element of the farce: The speaker on the first class phone malfunctions, so that everybody still awake can hear the passengers’ possibly last exchanges with their not-loved ones (most of them are incapable of communicating with others unless it involves drinking, sexism, barking orders, or all of the above, which isn’t really communication). But if everybody in coach is asleep, and if Almodóvar already believes the noxious rich people are incestuous (because they all fuck each other), what’s the point?
One of the overheard conversations involves a famous actor who calls one of his mistresses who’s standing on a bridge in Madrid, ready to jump. It’s the only time Almodóvar leaves the plane while it’s in the air, and it’s a sequence that, if he pursued it for more than just this one passenger, could have moved his film beyond flatlining farce (it eventually involves another mistress and great coincidence, but Almodóvar’s mind is stuck on the plane). Instead, this sequence occurs in the film’s first half, he refuses to leave the plane again, and the claustrophobia and boning continue.
One-note Almodóvar is still Almodóvar. I just hope this diverted flight was little more than his own diversion from the exciting places he’s taken his career and his ideas lately.