Ah, the “early, funny ones.” That seemingly innocent, but bitterly loaded, phrase for the evolved artist’s simpler, less conflicted juvenilia was coined by Woody Allen in his 1980 film “Stardust Memories” to playfully antagonize fans with limited patience for his tonal experimentation. He was hardly the first nor the last filmmaker to look down his nose at his own foundational work, even as he backslid towards less risky creative territory in years to follow. Rarer is the established auteur who exhibits an active hankering for his own “early, funny ones,” whether or not his audience is demanding the same — but then, Pedro Almodóvar has never played by anyone’s rules but his own.
Since hitting the conceptual and psychological heights of “Talk to Her” and “Bad Education” on either side of 2003, Almodóvar has spent most of the last decade wallowing in self-nostalgia of a sort — referencing and rehashing past forms and fascinations, to ends both warm and fuzzy (“Volver”) and coldly kinky (“The Skin I Live In”). But never had the Spaniard actively gone in for self-homage until “I’m So Excited!,” a puerile, primary-colored throwback to his name-making sex farces of the 1980s that falls stunningly short of those films in just about every department.
Not many films are worthy of their own exclamation point. Almodóvar got away with two in “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” one of the lurid, erotically charged comedies this considerably tamer effort aspires to emulate; given the depleted energy level here, not to mention several bemused-looking performances, a question mark may have been more appropriate. To be fair, the title is punctuation-free in it its original Spanish incarnation, “Los amantes pasajeros,” which hinges on a saucy pun that, like more than a few quips in Almodovar’s pseudo-breezy but ultimately rather fussy script, isn’t easily translatable. In poaching the title of the Pointers Sisters hit that soundtracks the film’s most memorable (which isn’t to say best) set piece — a campy cabin-crew karaoke number that went viral back in December — the international marketers calculatedly chose a peppy universal banner for a film heavy on murky, half-baked Spanish social satire, added that exclamatory adornment and hoped for the best.
Or perhaps the intent of that desperate punctuation mark is simply to tap into our fond memories of “Airplane!,” the evergreen disaster-movie spoof that so thoroughly milked the possibilities of airborne melodrama for comedy, it scarcely left room for new jokes in its sequel, much less a separate send-up 33 years later that makes no attempt to match its mile-a-minute gag rate. In fact, this scattershot, deliberately non-urgent tale of a corrupt crew wreaking havoc with panicked passengers on a botched flight to Mexico City would make a better double-bill with last year’s po-faced Denzel Washington vehicle “Flight”: if nothing else, both films form a convincing argument for the unlikely compatibility of substance abuse and emergency landings.
Unlike “Flight,” of course, the bulk of the drama takes place on the ill-starred flight in question, though not before a bafflingly punchline-free prologue in which amorous airport employees Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz inadvertently cause the technical fault that in turn causes the mid-air crisis. The stars, Almodóvar’s two most loyal servants, beat a hasty, well-advised retreat after this wasteful cameo appearance, never to be seen again. The faces we’re left with are considerably less famous, though at least a couple of them will be familiar to the director’s acolytes.
Javier Cámara, so wonderful in “Talk to Her” and by far the most alert performer here, plays the alpha male of the all-gay trio of air stewards serving (or servicing) the Business Class deck — where “All About My Mother” star Cecilia Roth holds court as the most vicious of the seven passengers on board. She’s a celebrity dominatrix of sorts — such professions being par for the course on Planet Almodóvar, naturally — while the others include a promiscuous soap-opera lothario, a shady investment banker, a contract killer, a virginal psychic and a pair of mescaline-smuggling honeymooners. That “contract killer” can be brushed aside mid-sentence is indicative of the patently trivial tone Almodóvar is going for here: this individual dramas of this oddball assortment are dealt with in passing, yet curiously, never braided the way the director would have done in such madcap early works as “What Have I Done to Deserve This?.”
With composer Alberto Iglesias an uncharacteristically invisible presence, you may wonder why proceedings are so quiet, even given the vacuum-packed in-flight ambience. Here’s at least one reason why: the Economy Class passengers have been drugged, en masse, at the behest of the flight’s two pilots. One’s an alcoholic; the other’s an uptight family man maintaining a long-term affair with Cámara, a perma-randy cad who, for reasons of narrative contrivance, is physically incapable of telling a lie. You needn’t know the reason for this, or indeed for the mass doping. As those toward the front of the plane get increasingly drunk, high and naked in the face of potential doom, the endgame is an unsubtle yet unilluminating political allegory in which the have-nots are powerless while the wanton haves all but run them into the ground — and, in one of several flatly staged scenes of raunchiness, quite literally screw them over. Contrary to ragged, racy appearances, Almodóvar’s “early, funny ones” could be just as socially touchy as this one, though they were never quite this diagrammatic.
The problems and perversions of Europe’s One Percent was a prominent theme at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, surfacing in works of variable insight and quality from such filmmakers as Paolo Sorrentino and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi. Perhaps Almodóvar, a Croisette regular after all, might have joined them if this particular film of his weren’t at once so wispy and exclusive: it seems to have dodged the scrutiny of the Euro festival scene under the auspices of being a rollicking, audiences-first entertainment, when it’s arguably the stodgiest, most dogmatic film this usually extravagantly generous director has made.
It’s certainly the dullest. So much of the banal construction — despite the presence of Almodóvar’s usual ace collaborators and his obligatory pop-art palette, it’s his first film in eons that doesn’t even look good — and slipshod storytelling on display here could be excused if the film were actually funny. But one-liner after one-liner floats in the recycled cabin air to nary a chuckle, as one physical gag after another lands on its side. Even the much-vaunted rendition (in its entirety, I might add) of the eponymous disco tune, mildly amusing in clipped teaser format, arrives here as an interminable, clumpily edited montage of almost pleading perkiness; at the very least, it’s the kind of grasping-at-straws entertainment that put-upon service staff might well rustle up to distract clients from impending death.
There’s a sense here that Almodóvar is dumbing down his own craftsmanship in the spirit of general japery, pretending to be the ruder, cruder artist he was 30, or even 20, years ago — at least in part to show us how far he’s come. But it’s a hollow, disingenuous trick that backfires horribly as it turns out that “I’m So Excited!” hasn’t the vim or vigour of even his later, “serious” works, much less the delicious silliness of his early cinematic finger-painting. Successful sketchiness requires more commitment than calculation, a formula this self-admiring yet self-demeaning throwaway from one of the modern cinema’s most gifted eccentrics gets almost bewilderingly wrong. It’s always tough to learn that you can’t go home again; what Pedro Almodóvar should hopefully know, however, is that he doesn’t need to.