Trousersnakes on a plane

Reviewed: Pedro Almodóvar’s "I'm So Excited!".

I’m So Excited (15)
dir: Pedro Almodóva

Pedro Almodóvar’s new film is a ribald sex comedy confined largely to the business class section of a flight heading from Spain to Mexico: think of it as Trousersnakes on a Plane. The candy colours and the high campness quotient indicate a return to the tone of the director’s earliest work, especially his 1988 breakthrough success, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, after some turgid melodramas. I’m So Excited! wears its apparent frivolity as proudly as a Carmen Miranda fruit turban. During a musical number lipsynced by a trio of male flight attendants, one passenger stirs from her slumber to ask: “What’s going on?” “Nothing,” replies her companion, which could be read as a comment on the film in general. (The last scene even takes place in a flurry of bubbles.)

But no movie in which the economy passengers are sedated for the duration of the flight, while the wealthy elite get to bitch and booze to their heart’s content, can be said to have surrendered its satirical intent at checkin. Like in any disaster film, the characters on board are carrying the sort of baggage that can’t be stored in the overhead lockers. There’s a disgraced financier with some complicity in Spain’s financial crisis and a dominatrix with a sideline in blackmail. Audiences are likely to appreciate the clairvoyant Norma most; she is played by Almodóvar’s chirpy, long-time collaborator Cecilia Roth, a woman you might feasibly want beside you if your plane was going down. Norma has foreseen terrible things for the flight but remains hopeful that someone on board might relieve her of her virginity.

I’m So Excited! aspires to be a light comedy about a heavy subject. Advance notice of its topsy-turvy perspective is to be found in the opening scene, in which a baggage handler and a member of the ground crew are distracted from their duties by a soap-operastyle revelation. Being a frumpy sort, the baggage handler is naturally played by Penélope Cruz. And who else but Antonio Banderas could star as her nondescript colleague? This is a nod to Almodóvar’s history with these performers, whose film careers he launched, but there’s a plot point here, too. It is precisely the inattention of these beautiful people on the ground that leads to catastrophe in the air: with the landing gear fatally compromised, the plane is forced to circle Madrid airport awaiting a runway to accommodate its crash landing.

Not the most promising start for a comedy, perhaps, but then it is important to remember that this is a director who finds laughs where none have existed. His 1980 debut, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap, began with a woman being raped by a cop whom she had attempted to bribe with sex, and Kika (1993) nudged at the boundaries of humour with yet another rape, this one borne by its victim with a pragmatism at once amusing and poignant. A rape of sorts occurs in I’m So Excited! (it’s of the female-on-male variety) but the stiffest test of taste is whether comedy can flourish on a doomed flight in times markedly less innocent than those that produced a spoof like Airplane!.

Comic responsibilities in Almodóvar’s film are laid mainly at the feet of the gay, male cabin-crew trio, headed by Joserra (Javier Cámara). They take it on themselves to keep spirits up by dispensing drugs and alcohol, while preparing a song-and-dance routine that turns out to have been part of their emergency training.

The situation is not too grave to stop them worrying about whether the pilot’s wife is wise to his affair with Joserra, or how much mescaline to put in the punch, or what exactly the flight attendant Ulloa (Raúl Arévalo) has in the corner of his mouth. The movie may be a trifle but you can bet that’s not cream.

Though it’s encouraging to find Almodóvar rediscovering comedy after two gruelling melodramas (Broken Embraces and The Skin I Live In), the satire is never quite stinging enough, the laughs not as resonant as the staging and line readings would suggest. The elements of silly and sombre occasionally cancel out one another, leaving the film suspended in the same limbo as its characters. Still, no matter how dire the situation gets for the passengers, there is one consolation: at least they’re not flying Ryanair.

José María Yazpik and Cecilia Roth in "I'm So Excited!".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser