Pedro Almodovar's new movie, "I'm So Excited," opens with the disclaimer that none of what we're about to see has anything to do with reality. Minutes later, we're on a plane, where a group of fabulously bored-looking flight attendants are giving safety instructions. It feels pretty real.
Minutes after that, everyone in coach is asleep, having been given heavy sedatives. Shift to business class, where a small, smiling woman (Lola Duenas) approaches the cockpit and explains to the captains that she has psychic powers, and today is the day she will finally lose her virginity.
The plane — chartered to fly from Spain to Mexico — is trapped in the air with faulty gear, and the pilots are circling to try to find somewhere to make an emergency landing. This doesn't seem to worry them as much as it might in another kind of movie. The conceit of the plot — like the drugged passengers in coach and the stage-like sets of the cockpit and business section — are basically excuses to send a handful of strong personalities ricocheting around a small space with nowhere else to go.
Absurdities escalate quickly. Two of the three male stewards — charming if reductive caricatures of gayness complete with a Pointer Sisters lip-sync routine — get wasted, while a third prays to a portable Catholic shrine he keeps in a briefcase. A young newlywed produces a condom from his ass filled with pills of mescaline, which are emptied into everyone's cocktails by the stewards in order to encourage conversation. Several people orgasm.
There are as many jokes about sex and drugs here as you might expect from a Judd Apatow production. Sample interaction, between the virgin psychic and the newlywed, whose wife is bouncing up and down on his lap, mid-coitus: "Are you doing it from the front or back?" "The front," he says, gasping. Enlightened, she sneaks into coach and removes a sedated penis from a sleeping passenger's pants and begins mimicking what she's learned. In a shot characteristic of Almodovar's ability to turn the willfully crass into the resplendently beautiful, we see the back of her head from his perspective, her hair cascading over half-open eyes.
Part of what makes Almodovar's best movies so special is his ability to represent this kind of humor in the context of movies that are otherwise dramatic. Crassness isn't used to undercut drama, but to leaven it, demonstrating not only his range as a filmmaker but a real affection for the human spirit, which is often compelled either by resilience or just bad judgment to crack dick jokes in even the most gravely serious situations.
So though he relieves himself of any responsibilities to real life, the movie's richest scenes are when he seems incapable of ignoring it. Faced with the possibility that their time is running out, the characters decide to call loved ones, only to find out that the one working phone in business class is on perma-speaker, exposing private conversations to a small, interested public. After one of the captains — a repressed father of two — cheats on his wife with a steward, he asks him: What should I do? Call your wife, the steward says. Tell her you love her. Fighting back tears in front of a group of drunk strangers, he does. It's in these scenes that Almodovar seems to acknowledge the responsibility of putting characters in a situation where they might not make it out.
In the end, Almodovar hasn't really set the bar high enough for you to care about whether the plane crashes or not, but in the interest of preserving the mystery, let's just say that he takes full advantage of the thick, white fire-suppression foam the aviation safety workers spray all over the tarmac. Like some of his earlier movies — particularly 1988's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and 1990's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" — "I'm So Excited" is a movie where all potential tragedy is surrendered to absurdity, and where characters are not explored for the richness of their lives as much as the wacky and unstable things they might do.
Watching their various interconnecting storylines not quite coalesce can get tiring sometimes. Ditto the movie's spastic late-game efforts to flesh out characters like Norma Boss, a failed actress turned professional madam who carries her weight as an uptight passenger but not an object of sympathy.
But the movie is ultimately not for them. It is for the slapstick mescaline orgy, for the deflowered psychic, for the steward who wipes a blot of semen off the corner of another steward's mouth, and for the three of them, lip-syncing the Pointer Sisters, wriggling down the aisles of business class on their backs, seeming to have forgotten they're on a plane at all.
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