Pedro Almodóvar’s “return” to straight-ahead comedy (all his movies, to different degrees, are comedies at heart) brought me back to something he told Conan O’Brien during a promotional visit in the ’90s.
When O’Brien, obviously unprepared and nervously reading from cue cards, told the Spanish director that “your movies are…” and proceeded to describe his films in detail, Almodóvar interrupted him. “So… I came all the way from Spain so that you could tell me what kind of movies I make?” The crowd laughed and O’Brien turned red-faced, unable to follow up with his own punchline besides a lame “nobody respects me.” Almodóvar had no mercy on him. “C’mon! This is American TV! You need to be fast, fast, fast!”
It was probably the most embarrassing live moment for O’Brien, himself a top-notch comedy writer, and a confirmation of what Almodóvar is all about: while his tone and attitude couldn’t be more Spanish, his rhythm is all-American in the best Preston Sturges tradition—only God knows what would’ve happened if Almodóvar had had the chance to direct, say, Veronica Lake. But unlike most classic screwball comedies (what legendary critic Andrew Sarris once described as a “sex comedy without the sex”), Almodóvar’s screwballs have sex. Lots of it. You don’t necessarily see it, but you feel it in the air. Thirty-five thousand feet in the air, to be exact.
I’m So Excited takes place mostly in the air, aboard a flight to Mexico City. A problem in the landing gear puts everyone’s life in danger, so the azafatos (the hilarious, flamboyant male flight attendants of flexible sexuality) make sure the passengers are either asleep—via a Valencia drink that makes them horny—or simply passed out. In the meantime, the pilots endlessly circle Toledo, Spain, while waiting for an empty airport at which to land. It is all an excuse for Almodóvar to display his usual cast of freaks and misfits: a couple of newlyweds who screw using drugs the groom stored up his ass; an embezzler with paternal instincts; a lying Don Juan; a virgin psychic; a Mexican hitman; and a gossip magazine celebrity.
You don’t have to speak Spanish to dig Almodóvar at his best. His breakthrough Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), to name the most famous example, had a universal appeal that worked everywhere; but in the case of I’m So Excited it helps to be able to hear the rhythm of his dialogues in order to get the myriad inside jokes in Almodóvar’s film (the PE airline letters on the airplane’s exterior allude to Penélope Cruz’s nickname; the plane is named Chavela Blanca, in honor of Mexican singer Chavela Vargas and actress Blanca Sánchez, two late personal friends of Almodóvar’s; when the Mexican hitman suggests he changes his face, Argentine actress Cecilia Roth, herself the victim of a notorious botched Botox job, says, “I know of a plastic surgeon!”). I’m a fanatic proponent of subtitles vs. dubbing, but looking down to read a punchline in this movie (which I did on occasion) makes you waste valuable seconds and you miss the beat.
Not everything is sex and drugs in I’m So Excited. The movie cleverly references Spain’s current financial crisis and manages to reflect on the ways many Spaniards view South Americans and Mexicans (the former “settle everything by killing each other” while the latter’s lives “aren’t worth anything”). The laughs are there, but are as transient as the passengers—this ain’t no Women on the Verge… (see “Underrated Almodóvar” for more Almodóvar movies you shouldn’t overlook).
Almodóvar is an acquired taste, and whether or not I’m So Excited works for you depends on how much you’re willing to go along for the ride. This is Almodóvar’s most movida madrileña film since 1980 (the movida madrileña being the Madrid’s sudden censor-less happenings that followed dictator Franco’s death). Too bad it’s happening in 2013.
Writ. and dir. Pedro Almodóvar; feat. Javier Cámara, Lola Dueñas, Cecilia Roth, Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas (R)
Opens at the Bijou Aug. 2
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