I’ve followed Pedro’s career with so much excitement. He went from being a knight of the Spanish “Movida” to making serious comedies like "Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down". Then something happened to him and he got a sudden burst of maturity with "All About My Mother", a film that inaugurated the new and improved Almodovar, a filmmaker with a meticulous (almost surgical) way of developing his scripts, which he then made into visually impressive wonders of storytelling. Not that his previous films were immature, but Almodovar was more of a free-spirited guy who liked to mix story with any idea that fell into place (or even out of place). The new Almodovar has been more careful and nurturing about his scripts. "Talk To Her" presented a story about women told by their two lovers, "Bad Education" intertwined reality, memories and obsessions with a very crude religious occurrence. "Volver"...well, this is a personal favorite, because it is his most tender and melancholic film. "Broken Embraces" made storyline something of an intricate nature and "The Flesh I Live In" used horror films to develop a story with chilling implications.
So, I have to say, we have been spoiled by Almodovar, to always want more and better, and more complex. Every new film becomes a reason to celebrate around the world. His name in a film festival gives audiences something to be anxious about and American actors are counting the hours till he decides to make his first English-Language film.
Going back to "Volver", I remember the first time I saw it. I simply fell in love with it, but I thought there was a big chunk of the film that...didn’t have much to do with the story, and I felt like Almodovar had simply placed those scenes there as filler. Days later I read an interview, and the Spanish Master revealed that the film had been born exactly in those parts that I thought didn’t belong there. So, of course, I had to see it again and then it all made more sense.
I went through this little episode because, after watching "Los Amantes Pasajeros" (or "I’m So Excited" as it is titled in the US) I had to run home and do my research, trying to find something to ease all my worries. I found out that, as it says in the opening “This film is only the product of fiction”, which meant it was going to be a metaphor for something that occurs in real life, Almodovar admits that his latest comedy is based on the current economical instability of Spain, and how politics are leading the country to disaster. This will mark the first time Almodovar lets a political agenda shape his entire film, not that films like "What Have I Done To Deserve This", or "Law Of Desire" weren’t political, but here is a film that uses every idea, plot twist and character as a reflection or personal thought on the political turmoil of the troubled European country.
The film pretty much says Spain (the plane, strategically named Peninsula Airlines) is being guided by the King and the President of the Government (the Captain and co-pilot) who hide secrets to the people they’re suppose to protect (on one level, the plane is malfunctioning and needs to land. On the other, these pilots have been engaging in gay sexual activities behind their spouses). They can’t seem to lead the country to stability (no airport allows them to land) so they need to fly in circles for hours waiting for a magical solution or for the tragic end (the imminent crash). While this is happening, the captain orders to completely sedate all the passengers in economy (the lower classes are silent and easily manipulated). The very few passengers in business class are the ones who try to make sense of it, sometimes trying to take charge of the situation, but waiting for the pilots to do their job. And in order to keep them “occupied” the captain orders the three male flight attendants to “entertain” the Business Class (Let’s say here’s where the media gets in), except that these three guys are openly gay (that’s why TV is so flamboyant with musicals and games and soap operas). Oh, and the business class is comprised of people that hold secrets or are expert deceivers.
Knowing Almodovar’s films I’m sure a close scrutiny of "I’m So Excited" would release all the hidden messages about his country’s situation, but I will have to admit that, if the song is out of tune, there’s no way we will pay attention to the lyrics. So, his latest film reminds me of the moment when I thought Woody Allen had lost his comic genius (or simply didn't care for film anymore) right after "Hollywood Ending". The film is undeniable Almodovarian: filled with vibrant primary and pastel colors, baroque characters, surreal situations taken in a very matter-of-fact way, and a soap-opera-like interaction, not to criticize them, but to underline how mere mortals turn love and relationships into something overly dramatic. Missing, are the more intimate undertones, the passion of sexual liberation turned into an almost criminal expression. The transgression. Almodovar is happy just by showing a drop of semen on one of the character's face, and revealing the very masculine co-pilot is actually a homosexual coming out to himself and to us. And when the captain decides to live openly with his male lover, it is clear Almodovar has filled all his bases with sexual liberation. Nevertheless I felt this is his least personal film, and even, that he lost interest somewhere, or that it never really came from within, but from outside. I read, his intentions were to go back to the times of the "Movida" and wanted to infuse his film with the comedies of Spanish directors like Berlanga or Fernando Fernan, and I'm sure he has all the right to, but I feel this experiment doesn't hit the mark he intends and doesn't sound honest. Yes, it's filled with allusions, but it's completely off-tempo.
Hints of Almodovar being careless are everywhere, from the original title of the film, referring to “the temporary lovers” (the film is not a compendium of short-term love affairs as the title might suggest) to the English version “I’m So Excited”, which translates back to Spanish as “I’m So Turned On”, something that explains the sexual “openness” in the film that ends up becoming nothing more than a teenage dream of sexual satisfaction on a plane to the sound of the Pointer Sisters. From the opening titles, which use a very long and not-too-funny cartoon which seems senseless in comparison to the wonderfully kitsch title sequences of most of his films, to the inconsistency of his characters (Norma, for example, is a character I don’t understand. The flight attendants are supposed to be worried about her demanding ways but she simply goes back to her seat and nothing major happens. She is supposed to be this ex-dominatrix who holds secret videos from many powerful men in compromising positions and she is constantly on the verge of exposing the crew’s behaviour to the “authorities”, but she ends up in the arms of a Mexican hit man hired to kill her, as a consequence of a “dangerous” Agua de Valencia cocktail supposedly prepared by the flight attendants to calm everyone down, but becoming an aphrodisiac instead, which also helps the telepathic Bruna lose her virginity with a middle eastern sleeping beau (the idea of sex with an unconscious person, which was present in "Talk To Her", is repeated here to lesser impact).
If Almodovar was aiming at going back to his “cutre” roots of "Pepi, Lucy, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom", and "Labyrinth of Passion", he certainly made a good imitation, but he has grown older and wiser. He’s not the same person even if he longs to be. He’s somewhere else and making the Spanish version of "Airplane" with political undertones plagued with self-reference doesn’t add anything of importance to his resume, not to mention its little entertainment value besides the cameos by Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas and the show-stopper musical number that gives the movie its English title.
By the end, the only airport that allows them to land is the one in La Mancha. After a little research I realised this same Airport has been closed because of corruption and the terrible administration in the country. Almodovar has made his point with something unthinkable from him: a half-cooked film. If Stanley Kubrick envisioned the end of the world and the Atomic Bomb in "Dr. Strangelove" as a slapstick comedy but decided to edit out the pie-throwing sequence in the war room because it was too preposterous even for an over-the-top film, Almodovar has all the right to make a light comedy out of Spain’s economic and political debacle. Now, the subject has proven not worthy of his poetry and style, even if this has been one of his fewest blockbusters in his own country.
I do hope I see it again and change my mind, but for now lets just say that this is the only Almodovar film I would scratch off my list. Something I never thought would happen.