“When you were a little boy you wanted to be a pilot,” my mother has said on and off during my adult years. She’s rewriting history to erase the embarrassing memory of raising a clearly gay son — I actually wanted to be a flight attendant.
My true aspiration is completely understandable. We were Americans living in Rome and we travelled great distances, especially to visit the grandparents in Australia. That was a real schlep, going from Italy via the States and tumbling endlessly down Down Under. Or that’s how it seemed to a child. I don’t know how my mother managed, but it is my recollection that the stewardesses, as they were called back then, played an important role by entertaining me and letting me help out in the galley.
This was the height of Jet Age, and my parents were characters straight out of Mad Men: suits and grooming and alcoholism and resentment and high-piled coiffed hair. I wore a blazer and tie for all flights from I barely remember what age, a habit I would keep until I was well into my thirties, when I noticed that planes had somehow turned into flying buses and now all I needed was a pair of slip-ons and an exit-row seat. But back then, on the flights to Australia, my heroines the Qantas stewardesses changed into sarongs when we flew over the South Pacific and vagued down the aisle serving pasties made fresh by the onboard chef in the galley. When we passed the International Date Line, the captain gave me a Neptune Club certificate for defying the space-time continuum and leaping a day ahead as I helped serve those fresh pastries. I was all over every flight I was on and I never left a plane without my travel bag full of cans of soda, gifted to me by those glamorous trolley dollies.
Experiences like that were how I learned the true, deep meaning of the word ‘fabulous,’ a moment secondary in importance to every Ghey’s life only to his coming out.
I mention this because Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, I’m So Excited, seeks to evoke the feeling and style of that fabulous early 70s golden age of travel, updated to our more vulgar, dissolute era of random sex and copious drug and alcohol consumption. The only thing I’m inspired to do after seeing the movie is try the Valencia cocktail, a mixture of champagne, orange juice, gin and mescaline that has just been removed from the ass of a hot Spanish drug mule. Yee haw!
I don’t know how Almodóvar has the energy or inspiration to make a film every year. It’s certainly admirable. I know he has a standard financing process in place with the same investors taking the same percentage of participation in the same positions of recoupment; apparently he puts in a sizable chuck of his own profits from previous outings via his production company El Deseo, a good way to ensure nobody busts your balls too much about the result. Not that anyone would bust Almodóvar’s balls: like the overly prolific Woody Allen — who makes similar dialogue-based ensemble pieces except in English and from a straight point of view — Almodóvar is by now a revered institution who is guaranteed a certain box office return no matter what he throws up there.
And thrown up he has in this film, regrettably, not from air sickness but from a nausea brought on by the ennui of setting up a bit of filmed theater on a plane that literally has no destination, so it’s doomed to circling the screen for close to two hours killing time, just like me and my Aussie stewardesses in the galley thirty thousand feet over Fiji. How much fun is watching a troupe of Spanish actors playing an extended game of Let’s Pretend, but unsure of what to do next to keep us amused? Not much. Any improv group in L.A. or New York would be more engaging, and have more purpose.
The film opens with Almodóvar veterans Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas as ground crew who accidentally fuck up a Aerolíneas Península plane’s landing gear. The rest of the tongue-in-cheek, telenovela-plotted story focuses mostly on the passengers and the flight crew in the business-class cabin and cockpit — the rest of the passengers have been knocked out early on after being served tranquilizers to defuse ‘Economy Class Syndrome.’ Having discovered the fault with the landing gear, the bisexual pilot and sexually ambiguous co-pilot are forced to circle Spain looking for an airport to crash land. In the meantime, the three histrionic Gheys in the galley engage with the passengers — a former soft-porn actress turned high-class madame; a handsome middle-aged soap-opera actor; an ingénue psychic in her late thirties who is still a virgin; campy yada yada, deliberately contrived etcetera. Then they get so bored they lip sync the Pointer Sister’s “I’m So Excited” while prancing about the cabin in what has to be the dullest, laziest gay cabaret performance ever committed to the big screen.
I have no idea why this film was made other than to fill some yearly quota by El Deseo; it’s about absolutely nothing, not even sexuality — it is too off the mark about that. It’s merely a ribald riff with no point, a modern French farce lifted from a lost fragment of Petronius’ Satyricon. (Do not take that pastiche reference to mean it is more interesting than it really is.)
I have enjoyed and even admired most of Almodóvar’s films in the past. This is still the playfully confident work of a master, for sure — in my mind I am comparing I’m So Excited with Volver, as I must, and it gets slaughtered.
There are two elements common to almost every Almodóvar film: the musical/dance performance, and the highly emotional denouement when he brings you to the verge of tears, in defiance of the absurdity of the wrenching monologue being given by an overly masculine HIV-positive junkie transsexual. The emotional payoff is utterly missing from this piece — indeed, there is no denouement at all other than the cleverly portrayed crash landing — and as a consequence the film falls splat, flatter than a tortilla.
One can always rely on a superbly designed production with Almodóvar; he has a bold, distinctive visual style that is a pleasure to observe; his command of color and pattern combination evokes early Christian Lacroix. In this film, the palette is teal blue, rust, ivory and charcoal gray. As the Gheys would say, it’s fabulous, darling.
I’m So Excited isn’t a colossal failure so much as it’s a stumble, and Almodóvar hasn’t broken a hip, but he has banged his knee badly. In the end, this will make its money back — it’s almost entirely shot in a studio, I can’t imagine the budget was very high — and we’ll probably see another film next year, one that hopefully allows us to declare a return to form.