Pedro Almodovar’s appearance on The Graham Norton Show last week to promote I’m So Excited! caused a number of startled cineastes to spit out their popcorn/dummies in dismay, as if by agreeing to appear on a late-night show with one of our most prominent mainstream presenters were in itself an act tantamount to cultural treason. What’s next, Steve Reich on Steve Wright In The Afternoon? Cormac McCarthy on The One Show?
This kind of cinematic snobbery is to be expected, of course, but those who insist on applying it to Almodovar are missing the point somewhat – sure, he’s a gifted, politically conscious film-maker, a keen stylist and absolutely worthy of the auteur label and all that it implies, but he also makes films that are genuinely popular with mainstream audiences. And not just in his native Spain: he has a significant fanbase in Britain and around the world now, thanks perhaps to his metronomic output (we get a new Almodovar film every spring, every two years, as a general rule), while his status as probably the most celebrated Spanish-language filmmaker in a world where a whole bunch of people speak Spanish probably doesn’t hurt.
But it’s mainly thanks to his films, which, like other arthouse fare, are socially conscious and often boundary-pushing, but they’re also made with a wit and a playful sexuality that make them feel genuinely warm and appealing where many of the works of his contemporary filmmakers feel cold. I’m So Excited! represents Almodovar embracing his mainstream audience by producing his broadest work yet, while attempting to retain at least some of the thoughtfulness of his other, more ‘serious’ films. It’s a tricky balancing act that, it has to be said, he manages to pull off with quite a degree of success here.
A Spanish plane bound for Mexico City is forced to make an emergency landing after two airport workers (Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz in enjoyable cameos) fail to adequately check the landing gear, following a life-changing revelation. However, the plane is unable to find a landing strip in the whole of Spain, with all of the airports taken up with the thoroughfare from various sporting and political events. As a result, the plane is forced to circle around interminably, while an outrageous triumvirate of gay flight attendants, armed with a seemingly endless supply of cocktails, mescaline, and fabulous song and dance numbers, try and entertain the motley crue of passengers in business class (those flying economy are drugged and knocked out almost immediately) while stopping them from turning on each other.
The film itself is the kind of farcical comedy that Almodovar hasn’t really touched upon since the likes of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, and like that film, it features a cast of eccentrics (played flawlessly by Almodovar regulars) that you can tell he seems happy to just hang out and spend time with, while hoping by proxy that we will too. The uber-camp ensemble are an engaging bunch, to be sure, and the gag hit-and-miss ratio is just about good enough throughout that we’re able to forgive the odd clunker here and there.
His mischievous brand of taboo-breaking sex-comedy , one he memorably mined in another early effort, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, is also out in force here, with a plethora of blowjob jokes and not one but two scenes of what is effectively rape played solely for laughs: there is perhaps no other director in the world who would be able to get away with this, but the ‘anything goes’ atmosphere he fosters is so charmingly pervasive that the scenes were chuckled at heartily by the audience I watched the film with without a dissenting or shocked groan to be heard anywhere.
While this may be on the surface one of the frothiest (literally, in one late scene) films Almodovar has ever made, particularly after the brilliantly dark gothic horror of The Skin I Live In, you don’t have to look particularly hard to find some keen social commentary at work in I’m So Excited! In fact, it’s openly allegorical, to the point of being blunt: in Spain, there is a great crisis, that is likely to involve a huge crash, that nobody seems a) willing to acknowledge, or b) know how to resolve. The lower to middle classes are literally kept in the dark throughout, while the powers that be bicker, booze and fuck their way around the problem. Sound familiar etc etc.
Despite a subtext so big it’s a wonder the plane doesn’t crash into it, it’s still easy to see how some might take issue with the fact that Almodovar has chosen to tackle the grave economic issues currently facing Spain (the country is edging ever closer to a 30% unemployment rate) with a saucy screwball comedy, and might even deem it irresponsible. But I’ve always felt that political points are sometimes better more powerfully in cinema through the prism of populist film-making – look at High Noon, or Dawn Of The Dead, or District 9 – than they are in films that address issues with a poker face. I’m So Excited! falls in the category of films that are breezily entertaining while you’re watching them, but give you plenty of images and moments to chew on afterwards, and there aren’t many films like that left any more. It’s a quality to cherish in any film.
Also, if you’re serious about wanting Almodovar to tackle the Spanish economic crisis in a meaningful way, then really, what better way to do so than by making a Spanish-funded film a huge commercial success? I’m So Excited! is Almodovar’s biggest box-office hit ever in Spain, and looks set to be a significant hit here too. So let him appear on Graham Norton if he wants to, for God’s sake: the man’s trying to save Spain, one blowjob joke at a time.
I’m So Excited! is out in UK cinemas on Friday 3rd May.
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