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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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State