I'm So Excited! might have made a good 15-minute sequence in one of Pedro Almodovar's bubbly movies of the '80s and early '90s, when he was more or less single-handedly putting Spanish cinema on the international map after the country's pivot from Francisco Franco's sclerotic reign to giddy (those were the days) democracy. Stretched out to feature length, the premise wears thin fast, not least because the execution is a tuckered-out facsimile of the director's youthful zest. I don't take any joy in confessing it, but it's the first time I've ever caught myself dozing off at an Almodovar film. Back in the cushy days when I used to catch his latest at Cannes, he was always a great cure for jet lag.
Either that or Holding Pattern would be a better title for his latest than the one adopted by his English-language distributors. (The Spanish title is Los Amantes Pasajeros.) When fictional Peninsula Airlines' Flight 2549 to Mexico City develops a landing-gear malfunction, the plane is stuck in the limbo of Spanish air space. Until its pilots and the air-traffic controllers down below can figure out a solution, nobody's going anywhere except in circles.
Back in economy class, the passengers have been dosed with sleeping pills to prevent panic. For the bulk of the movie, we're in the flight's pointedly underpopulated business-class cabin, where some representatives of Spain's post-millennial upper crust—an absconding financier, a high-end dominatrix, a fortysomething virgin with second sight, and so on—are having their tongues and libidos alike loosened up by the mescaline-laced cocktails served up by a thoughtful trio of prancily gay airline stewards. Our lads also help pass the time by miming along to the old Pointer Sisters hit that provides the movie's U.S. moniker.
And yes, Pedro: we get it. From the airline's name and the ineptitude of those responsible for everybody's safety to anxiety about averting a potentially fatal crash, this is a parable of Spain's current economic and political woes. A reasonably clever one, too—on paper, anyhow. Yet the movie is so slackly made that it could be the work of a not especially gifted Almodovar imitator. It needs to be brutally satiric to sell itself, and that's plainly not where his mind or heart is at these days.
Then again, if anyone has earned a break, it's Almodovar. Now 63, he's had not one but two great bursts of creativity, of which the first was the string of born-to-be-outrageous movies (think John Waters with—sorry, Divine—more talent) that culminated with 1988's Women on The Verge of A Nervous Breakdown, still the signature movie of his career. Then, just when his innovations were turning formulaic—I've got no huge yen to revisit, say, either Kika or High Heels— he went on to a whole new level with All About My Mother, Talk to Her, and Bad Education (his look back at his Franco-era formative years, and well worth the wait). His last film before I'm So Excited!, 2011's The Skin I Live In, was such a pitiless mashup of Hitchcock, Bunuel, and David Cronenberg that I felt as if I'd just seen the debut of a 30-old-director on a mission, not the latest from a now avuncular festival-circuit veteran.
But that brilliant movie—at once passionate and clinical, psychologically wild and superbly controlled—wasn't what you'd call ingratiating. So maybe it's no surprise that I'm So Excited!, which has the tattletale flimsiness of an idea tossed together in a hurry—did some other project fall through?—seems meant as a frisky, undemanding return to the Almodovar of a quarter-century or more ago. Back then, however, he wasn't topical or political because he went out of his way to editorialize. He was both simply because he was young and fearless, conveying the exhilaration of his generation's post-Franco freedom in every frame. Whatever his characters stood for came in a distant second to their boundary-bursting individuality, and whatever Almodovar's opinion of them might be, he relished them too much to pass judgment.
This time out, I advise you to enjoy the early cameos by Antonio Banderas (an Almodovar discovery) and Penelope Cruz. They're the peak of I'm So Excited!'s charisma—although Almodovar regular Cecilia Roth, cast here as the dominatrix who claims to have the goods on Spain's most powerful men, is always a pleasure to see. Too bad the director's usual inventiveness in giving his characters wayward dimensions that aren't regulated by the premise isn't on display. Everyone merely fulfills his or her appointed place in the scheme, and the actors all seem to droop in their cut-and-dried roles—even those playing the gay flight attendants, who have to work the hardest to behave as if they're in a real romp of a movie. If Almodovar himself had ever been accused of heterosexuality, he'd probably be in hot water for dishing up such stereotypes.
Still, is the whole misfire any sort of proof that he's in decline? I wouldn't bet on it. Aside from a few Pedro-can-do-no-wrong diehards, I'm So Excited! has been getting some of the least enthusiastic reviews of his career. But since I know what vindictive bastards my brethren can be, what's striking is that nobody's taking any glee in knocking the movie, let alone seizing a hipper-than-thou chance to malign its director as yesterday's darling. Both are usually everybody's idea of fun when a filmmaker of Almodovar's longevity and caliber turns out a clunker; just ask Terrence Malick, who's probably still stunned at the drubbing he took for To The Wonder. That isn't just testimony to how much good will Almodovar has built up over the years. It's a reminder that he's surprised us too often in the past for anyone to be foolish enough to think he won't do so again.