After writing and directing over half a dozen emotionally wrenching and darkly funny melodramas —some of which are now considered masterpieces, among them “All About My Mother” (1999) and “Volver” (2006)— and experimenting with such genres as film noir (“Broken Embraces”) and horror (“The Skin I Live In”) in the last 18 years, can you blame Pedro Almodóvar for wanting to write and direct something on a much lighter vein? Except that “Los amantes pasajeros” (translated as “I’m So Excited” in the Anglo market after The Pointer Sisters song that is the basis for the film’s hilarious centerpiece) is far from a light comedy, even though it is outrageously funny. “Los amantes pasajeros” may be a throwback to his early taboo-breaking comedies, but it is also peppered with those dark ingredients that defined his later work.
Bound to Mexico City, Peninsula flight 2549 is in trouble: its landing gear has been damaged thanks to a slightly distracted crew member (Antonio Banderas) who just received news from his baggage-handler wife (Penélope Cruz) that she is pregnant. The plane needs to make an emergency landing at Madrid’s Barajas International Airport but can’t thanks to a United Nations security summit taking place at the airport. The pilots have no choice but to keep the plane in the air, flying around in circles, while a safe place to land is found.
Three gay stewards —hard-drinking Joserra (Javier Cámara), superstitious Fajas (Carlos Aceres) and strait-laced Ulloa (Raúl Arévalo)— have drugged the entire economy class while keeping the passengers on business class —the plane’s 1%— awake. They figure it will be easier to manage and entertain just a handful of passengers. But it turns out that these privileged passengers will keep this trip and the plane’s pilot and co-pilot entertained as well. Thanks to an in-flight phone with a conveniently broken speaker, everybody shares their deepest secrets, whether it’s Ricardo Galán’s (Guillermo Toledo) affair with mentally ill Alba (Paz Vega who is about to commit suicide) and former stewardess Ruth (Blanca Suárez) or dominatrix Norma (Cecilia Roth) fears that she might be the target of a hitman.
The remaining passengers and crew don’t need a phone to spill their beans. We soon find out that Joserra has been having an affair with married pilot Alex (Antonio de la Torre), that the virginal psychic Bruna (Lola Dueñas) is on her way to Mexico to help find some missing Spaniards who may have fallen in with the wrong crowd, and that banker Más (José Luis Torrijos) is wanted for a massive fraud involving the construction of the brand spanking new and now vacant airport in La Mancha. Then there’s the Mexican security consultant played by José María Azpik who thinks Roberto Bolaños’ deep, complex brick of a novel “2666” makes for great airplane reading. The cabin and business class turn into one big confessional and the stage for the aforementioned musical number as well as some uninhibited sex after they all partake of a heady cocktail containing tequila and barbiturates.
“Los amantes pasajeros” is a comedy full of layers. On the one hand, it’s frothy, gossipy, over-the-top, a work where Almodóvar lets loose and where he, his cast and crew are clearly having the time of their lives. Half of the cast are Almodóvar veterans and so is the crew: you can’t help but feel that this film was as much fun for them to make as it is to watch for those members of the audience willing to let themselves go and succumb to its many pleasures. But it is also a film about performance: the masks we wear, the images we project, and how we behave when stripped of those masks. By having his characters air their dirty laundry so blatantly, Almodóvar acknowledges that nothing is private in this day and age…and nothing ever really was.
Almodóvar also slyly alludes to Spain’s current economic crisis. Yes, there is an overt reference to the many banking and corruption scandals that have plagued the country in Mas’ actions. But the plane here is as adrift as the country, flying in circles in search of a way out. Half of the population may be as narcotized as the passengers in economy. But, fortunately, in the real world, the other half is taking to the streets, protesting. And then, there are all the references to Mexico’s drug war and the thousands of dead it has left behind. Both references anchor the film in a specific moment, in a specific time; the real world is never far behind, no matter how much fun you may be having on board a jetliner…or in a dark theater along with dozens of fellow moviegoers.