When the curious audience member asked the ticketman to describe Pedro Almodóvar’s “I’m So Excited,” he replied with “campy.” And after an awkward exchange where the audience member remained flustered and where campy remained undefined, she gave up and sat down behind me. I suggested she read Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp,” which explores the indefinable experience known as “camp.”
While “garish,” “outlandish” and “fabulous” could also describe the Spanish director’s work, “campy” best describes his repertoire, known for their bright and colorful costumes, raunchy jokes, and the caustic explorations of oddball histrionic characters’ sexuality. Yet even amidst the exaggerated personalities and aesthetics, his characters always elegantly, if not painfully, reveal themselves to the audience. Almodóvar makes no attempts to do so with this movie, which follows the crew and passengers aboard Peninsula Flight 2549, en route from Madrid to Mexico City. At no point in this movie will an audience member explore a definition a la Sontag. And none should. But even stripped to the bare minimum and clocking in at only 90 minutes, it’s distinctively Almodóvar.
Two star-crossed lovers (Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz) on an airport tarmac abandon the flight without preparing the landing gear. When the chief steward Joserra (Javier Cámara) learns the flight is in trouble, he goes into crisis mode, first slipping muscle relaxers to the economy class passengers and crew, citing “economy class syndrome,” and then taking shots of tequila. As tensions rise among the few business class passengers, self-proclaimed psychic and virgin Bruna (Lola Dueñas) strides into the cockpit, warning the pilots and Joserra that something terrible will happen on the plane, and she’ll lose her virginity, too. The two premonitions, we assume, are not connected, but these premonitions define the rest of the movie, with her serious premonition (a terrible circumstance) delivering the plot, and the humorous one (losing her virginity) carrying it. As passengers fear their deaths, they reveal their personal stories and, as expected, ultimately explore their primal sexual desires as well. Even as he willingly forfeited deep character development, the characters are still kitschy and horny; the costumes are still colorful; and what could have been a typical, cheap crisis-on-an-airplane movie becomes part of a trashy canon alongside Airplane (and broadly speaking, most Neil Simon movies too). I’m So Excited creates a story from sex and survival, two fundamental human instincts, but uses camp to portray it. He’s taken what could have been a rudimentary airplane crisis movie and still slips in astute cultural and social commentary.
But even the most serious audience member will forget he’s cut out any underlying meaning or complicated subtext and search for some onerous meaning. Hopefully they will fail to find it, and embrace simply what is before them. It only operates under two assumptions anyway: the first is the audience knows the definition of camp; the second is the audience knows the definition of camp because they have seen Almodóvar’s other movies (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Talk to Her, Bad Education most notably). Without the serious twists and melodrama, a campy movie is all that is left: take when Peninsula Flight 2549’s three flamboyant gay stewards (Carlos Areces, Raúl Arévalo and Javier Cámara) perform the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited,” the movie’s namesake, before a mostly empty business class. Still, Almodóvar exposing characters with all their screwiness and shamelessness and self-absorption makes the movie worth watching. They feel no regret for it. Indeed, at the movie’s end, everyone is redeemed.
Unlike many other modern directors, he doesn’t cynically or dismissively interpret modern life. And he doesn’t simplify the complex, he instead exaggerates it, and engages the audience’s sensibilities, which in modern life means the head and heart and (most of the) senses. With his keen understanding of the world around him, he knows all conflicted characters move between mainstream and underground worlds of modern Spanish life. I’m So Excited is a hilarious, gaudy, over-the-top farce that deserves its place in cult cinema (if not on the screens of every gay club around). Unfortunately after the movie ended, the audience member behind me commented she still didn’t get it.