I'm So Excited, Pedro Almodovar's 20th feature film, begins with the disclaimer "What you are about to see is a work of fiction and fantasy. It bears no connection to reality." This seems peculiar because it's so unnecessary: Almodovar has never been mistaken for a realist, and the opening scene of I'm So Excited is particularly cartoonish. Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas turn in cameos as blue-collar airport workers, an unsubtle bit of stunt casting that's funny all the same. Cruz is trucking baggage to a plane when a colleague unexpectedly turns up in her path; she swerves to avoid hitting him, and the baggage topples onto him instead. Banderas runs up to help, and within a few lines of dialogue they reveal not only that he and Cruz are a couple but that, for two months, she's been hiding from him that she's pregnant. The colleague, meanwhile, tries to get his bearings despite being covered in blood, his demeanor comically unfazed. Amid the slapstick and melodramatic cliches, the technicians forget to check the landing gear of a plane about to fly from Madrid to Mexico City, thus putting the flight in jeopardy.
This scene suggests that I'm So Excited will be Almodovar's least realistic film in some time, a throwback to the antic farces that made him a cult favorite in the 1980s. (Can it be a coincidence that the Pointer Sisters song it's named after was a hit single in 1984?) Indeed the movie exhibits many defining traits of vintage Almodovar comedies like What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984) and Law of Desire (1987): a multitude of soap opera-style premises, piled on top of one another to absurd effect; outsize, draglike performances; comic depictions of taboo subjects, particularly murder, drug use, and sexual fetishes; baroque camera movements and loud color combinations reminiscent of 50s Hollywood melodramas; and a good-natured tone that encourages affection toward every character, no matter how selfish, disturbed, or amoral. These films proceed from the intentionally skewed logic that if anything is possible in the movies, then anything is permissible as well.
The interesting thing about Almodovar is that he's made the transition from underground figure to mainstream success to venerated art-film director without ever changing his core fixations. (He shares this trajectory with David Cronenberg.) Every film he's released contains at least some of the qualities listed above; but beginning with The Flower of My Secret (1995), Almodovar introduced other elements into his filmmaking while backing away from full-on camp. Performances in his movies became more naturalistic; certain traumatic events were now presented seriously. Almodovar never dialed down his love of cinematic artifice; if anything, the plots of his films became even knottier (and the costumes even more spectacular) after the mid-90s. Yet that artifice now stood in opposition to recognizable, painful feelings: regret for past wrongdoing, loss of love, fear of death.
Those feelings are essential to I'm So Excited, even though they never rise above the surface. The movie doesn't simply revisit Almodovar's early work; it reexamines that work in light of what he's accomplished since. Most of the story takes place on the plane, which is imperiled by the damaged landing gear, and the possibility that all the major characters will die lends a dark undertone to the farcical developments.
That quality isn't evident at first, because Almodovar introduces the film's morbid aspect at the height of a breathless comic set piece. Bruna (Lola Dueñas), a passenger from first class, demands to enter the cockpit when she has a premonition that something life-changing will happen, and Joserra (Javier Camara), a flight attendant, grudgingly takes her up front. She retells her vision to the pilots, Alex (Antonio de la Torre) and Benito (Hugo Silva), explaining that she's clairvoyant and her premonitions usually come true. This sets off a slew of revelations: Joserra has been having an affair with Alex, who's married to a woman and has two children; Benito, who has long questioned his heterosexuality, once gave Alex a blow job; and Bruna, though obsessed with sex, remains a virgin in middle age because her clairvoyance scares away men. As in Almodovar's early comedies, the characters divulge these secrets casually, even giddily, suggesting the movie takes place in an alternate universe where nobody feels shame. During the conversation the pilots realize that the landing gear is kaput and they need to arrange an emergency landing if they want to land safely at all; until they can find a runway that's clear, they must fly in circles over Spain. The bad news registers almost as a non sequitur.
Because nobody can keep a secret in this movie, everyone in first class soon learns about the crisis. The news doesn't spread any further, though, because Ulloa (Raul Arevalo), another flight attendant, has secretly fed horse tranquilizers to everyone in coach at the beginning of the flight. (This is one of the film's best jokes, wittily acknowledging how two of Almodovar's favorite genres, the drawing-room farce and the chic melodrama, tend to disregard life beyond the upper class.) As the plane continues to fly in circles, the first-class passengers grow ever more emotional; some confess dark secrets to their seatmates; others telephone estranged loved ones (in another running gag, the only working phone is connected to the loudspeaker and each dramatic call plays out for the other passengers like a little piece of theater). Eventually the flight attendants—a trio of flamboyant, hard-partying gay men who moonlight as cabaret performers—lighten the mood by passing out cocktails spiked with mescaline.
A bacchanal on a plane that might crash: could this be a metaphor for Almodovar's movies, highly cinematic spectacles constructed around traumatic events? In any case, the setup allows Almodovar to condense a convoluted plot into a remarkably tight package. I'm So Excited is only 90 minutes long, and it doesn't waste a moment. The director juggles more than a dozen major characters—inevitably, each has some melodramatic backstory—while maintaining a rigorous sense of space. (He treats confined spaces as a creative challenge, finding a new way to combine colors and visual motifs in each sequence.) A master filmmaker, he manages to make all this look easy.
In another throwback to Almodovar's early work, I'm So Excited is cheerfully amoral about such dangerous behavior as hard drug use and illicit sex. But the relaxed morality conveys a weird dignity here; the characters want to experience as much pleasure as they can because it may be the last thing they ever do. The longer they stay in the air, the further they distance themselves from conventional morality in the name of absolute pleasure—as though creating an Almodovar film within an Almodovar film. When the filmmaker describes I'm So Excited as a fantasy with no connection to reality, he does so out of pride: for him, to gratify the imagination is a death-defying act.