I’m So Excited!: Almodóvar’s Bumpy Flight

The world's most vivacious film master takes a vacation from ambition and achievement

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Sony Pictures Classics

Peninsula Airlines flight 2549, en route to Mexico City, has a problem: a glitch in the landing gear requires the plane to fly in circles over Spain until an available airport runway can be found. In most airborne dramas, from The High and the Mighty to the recent Flight, an emergency like this would cue machismo from the pilots and agonizing among the passengers. But I’m So Excited! is a Pedro Almodóvar comedy. So, dear gay stewards, please serve up the drugs and alcohol, the spilling of dirty secrets and plenty of sex sex sex.

Moviegoers have long revered the Spanish auteur as the high priest of warm-to-torrid romantic melodrama, including the masterpieces All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002) — certified as such by their appearance on the all-TIME 100 Movies list— and, not far behind, Volver (2006) and Broken Embraces (2009). But in the early ’80s, in the first spasm of liberation after decades of the Franco dictatorship, Almodóvar launched his career with a series of giddily lurid, gay-toned films. Their titles (Dark HabitsLabyrinth of Passion, Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) screamed their rough intentions; the dramatis personae included ravenous vampires and nuns on LSD; violent death could come calling via heroin or a hatpin. In those days before he calmed down, or grew up, and channeled his cartoonery into empathy, it seemed as if Almodóvar aspired to be the Iberian John Waters.

(FIND: Two Pedro Almodóvar films on the all-TIME 100 Movies lists)

At 63, he’s channeling the old (young) Pedro. He jettisons the dead or comatose women who haunt the living in his mature movies. Though the landing of the Peninsula plane could result in fatalities, everyone parties like it’s 1983 — say, in Madrid’s LGBT Chueca district. By any definition of the term, I’m So Excited! is Almodóvar’s gayest film in a quarter-century. You can’t spell Peninsula without penis, or cockpit without… whatever. But the tone of the movie (whose original title, Los amantes pasajeros, translates as either The Passenger Lovers or The Passing Lovers) is not so much vivacious as lurching and frantic, as if a senior had overdosed on Viagra.

In the Economy section, the passengers and their stewardesses have passed out; they’ve been doped with a muscle relaxant. Meanwhile, all hedonism breaks loose up in Business. The pilot (Antonio de la Torre) and co-pilot (Hugo Silva) maintain the stern faces of, say, Peter Graves and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane!, but they’re also available for fellatio from a trio of très gay flight attendants (Javier Cámara, Raúl Arévalo and Carlos Areces). Of the seven luxury travelers, a Bride (Laya Martí) and Groom (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) get high on some pills he’s smuggled in his rectum. A famous dominatrix (Cecilia Roth) boasts of having serviced the 600 most important men in Spain. A soap-opera actor (Guillermo Toledo) tries to connect with two of the young women he has bedded and betrayed. A virgin psychic (Lola Dueñas), who believes she can smell doom, tiptoes back to Economy to be deflowered by a sleeping passenger (Nasser Saleh); apparently there are some organs that muscle relaxants don’t relax.

(READ: Pedro Almodóvar on his early movies)

This polymorphous promiscuity has a nostalgic air; the gay gaze is necessarily less transgressive in a nation that legalized same-sex marriage eight years ago. But a yearning to revisit and revive the distant Almodóvarian past suffuses the entire enterprise, including an O.K. karaoke that the stewards perform to the Pointer Sisters song that gives the movie its English title. The writer-director likes to work with friends; this time he recruited actors who, in sum, have graced 15 of his 18 previous films. Roth was in his first four features and starred incandescently in All About My Mother. Antonio Banderas (seven Almodóvars) and Penélope Cruz (five) appear as ground-crew personnel in the movie’s first scene. Cruz’s last collaboration with her mentor, Broken Embraces, ended with a scene restaged from Women on the Verge. The new film is a recapitulation of the very early ones, but with less zest and meaning — at least for audiences outside Spain.

The homegrown audience, which made this one of Almodóvar’s biggest local hits, would be tickled by the Spanish puns and slang, and certainly hipper to the movie’s satirical view of a country wracked by recession. The dominatrix’s clientele speaks to the degradation of Spain’s power brokers; the drugged passengers in Economy could be the working-class they sedated. A secretive financier (José Luis Torrijo) is responsible for the corporate malfeasance that turned a new airport into a billion-Euro scandal. Toward the end we see the actual abandoned terminal at Ciudad Real Airport— a ghostly monument to corruption. The mysterious Mexican in Business (José María Yazpik) would be forgiven if he blew most of his fellow passengers out of the sky.

(READ: Corliss on some of the prime Almodóvar films)

In 1989, Almodóvar praised Billy Wilder, the Austro-Hollywood giant who made Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, for “revealing a sordid society through the most delicious light comedies.” I’m So Excited! has some light comedy and several sordid revelations, plus a creamy color scheme within the limited in-flight palette; the stewards’ shirts, powder-blue with white collars trimmed in red, could become a fashion rage. But delicious the movie is not — except for a second-act interlude that parachutes the story to ground-level Madrid for a visit with two of the soap actor’s ex-girlfriends.

One (Paz Vega) is a habitual suicide ready to leap from a Madrid viaduct when she gets the actor’s call. The other is a more cheerful soul (Blanca Suárez); as she bicycles on the street below the viaduct, the suicide’s phone falls into her basket, giving her access to her former lover. For 20 minutes or so we’re treated to a solid screwball-comedy premise, straight out of Preston Sturges’s script for the 1937 Easy Living, that ripens into a few emotional complexities within hailing distance of the best Almodóvars. And Suárez, a vision of blessed normality in a pretty sundress, exudes a joy and sweet perplexity that are missing from the rest of the movie.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Skin I Live In)

We don’t mind that Almodóvar has taken a vacation from high ambitions and achievement. But even the filmmaker’s occasional misfires, like the 2011 The Skin I Live In, have elements of creepy grandeur. Aiming low, I’m So Excited! lands lower. We’ll hope for and expect better next time. For now, like a champion golfer on a goof-off holiday, Pedro gets a mulligan.