Spanish heavyweight Pedro Almodovar has returned to our screens with a scandalous proposition light-years away in tone and sensibility from his previous feature. 2011 Cannes competitor The Skin I Live In was a dark, engrossing psychological thriller; an entry into the estate of a demented skin surgeon liable to take revenge to extreme lengths. That seminal work is worth a mention purely because Almodvar’s latest farcical undertaking, I’m So Excited – known in Spanish as The Fleeting Lovers, or The Passenger Lovers – is, peculiarly, one piece of art masquerading in the skin of another.
Press coverage has focussed less on the auteur’s belated return to the type of sex comedy that made his reputation and more on the socio-political undercurrent of the film as a commentary on Spain’s contemporary economic woes. Almodovar has openly discussed the subtext; he acknowledges the invocation of his nation’s crises, though he asserts his principal motivation was to produce an escapist gift to the people, a “very light, light-hearted comedy” to distract from their respective and collective ordeals. Paradoxically, the film’s comedic front is only a fine layer over incredibly showy political comment, thereby confronting its viewers with an inescapable window into a shared predicament, no matter intentions to the contrary. You can’t fault disproportional viewer focus when the veil of humour is this wafer-thin.
Critical discussion has separated audiences into two groups: one that would view I’m So Excited in light of its cultural context, and the second clambering aboard for the comedic elements alone. To view the film as a comment involves little intuitive clue-seeking, for the metaphors are too overt to go unnoticed. We’re taken aboard a plane without landing gear, travelling aimlessly in circles. The passengers in Economic class are none the wiser, having been drugged by the flight attendants and left to doze through a crisis not of their making. Meanwhile, the elite bicker among themselves and, occasionally, bump uglies.
It’s precisely because the film wears subtext on the sleeve that its comedic potential is considerably weakened. Separated from their symbolic function, the typically eccentric Almodovar characters don’t ricochet off each other in quite the way they’re expected to – surprising for an airplane’s confined space, an area rife with opportunity for conflictual humour.
One may approach the feature with fond memories of Airplane! in mind and therefore expect a turbulent, howlingly funny mid-air fracas to ensue. Except, this particular plane is enduringly static, possibly because the majority of its passengers are fast asleep, oblivious to how they’re being shafted by the elite. At one point, Lola Duenas’ Bruna sneaks from the Business end into the hushed Economic class, planting herself on the cock of an unconscious passenger. At the end of the journey, the same passenger cries, “Hey, where’s my luggage?” The laughs are absent; the message is in plain sight.
The sequence that unfortunately lingers in the memory longest is that which has already been featured in the trailer and endured a dozen times over: it’s the air steward rendition of The Pointer Sisters’ breakout hit ‘I’m So Excited’ from which the film borrows its title. The routine is performed for the ostensible benefit of the passengers, but it’s really just a silly distraction from the looming catastrophe. Judging from the flummoxed expressions, it barely registers. The performance is an apt metaphor for the film itself, undertaken with mismatched intentions and, above all, profoundly irritating.