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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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle