When I think of contemporary filmmakers who should have been around during Hollywood’s Golden Age of classic comedies, Pedro Almodóvar springs to mind almost immediately. Just think of what the Oscar-winning auteur could have gotten out of silver screen luminaries like Cary Grant, Judy Holliday or Rosalind Russell. The possibilities inherent in an Almodóvar/Joan Crawford collaboration merit a column all their own, don’t you think?
But he wasn’t, so we’ll have to make do with I’m So Excited! (Los amantes pasajeros), which, by my calculations, is the Spanish director’s first full-on comedy since the outrageous misfire that was Kika … back in 1994. OK, so it doesn’t quite reach the delirious heights of, say, the sublime Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but this genial romp finds the Talk to Her creator in nostalgic, laid-back mode, and you’d have to be either a prude or a sourpuss not to be seduced by its naughty, sweet/tart vibe.
In the absence of Tinseltown’s grande dames of laughter, we have the flamboyantly over-the-top flight attendants of Península Airlines Flight 2549, which is heading from Madrid to Mexico City under a cloud of uncertainty, distrust and scandalous secrets from crew and passengers alike. Paranoid, high-strung Joserra (Javier Cámara) swore off booze and drugs, but the ground crew, played by A-list stars I wouldn’t dream of revealing here, engage in a minor – and fairly implausible – runway mishap that sends Chavela Blanca – it’s an Almodóvar movie; of course the plane has a name – up in the air with a stuck landing gear. Down the hatch for Joserra. And again. Rinse, repeat.
While Joserra’s getting hammered, pouty-faced Fajas (Carlos Areces) prays at his miniature pop-up shrine that appears to feature deities from different religions. (How ecumenical for a devout Catholic like Almodóvar.) It appears Fajas’ extra curves have resulted in a dry spell in the sexytime department, which is not a problem for fellow steward Ulloa (Raúl Arévalo), that slim minx with the attitude and the pornstache to match. It seems the natives are getting restless in business class, and since the female stewardesses all took sleeping pills, it’s up to the jolly trio to entertain grouchy entrepreneur Norma Boss (All About My Mother‘s Cecilia Roth), corrupt corporate CEO Sr. Más (José Luis Torrijo), aging matinee idol Ricardo Galán (Guillermo Toledo) and a hunky honeymooner (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) the movie simply credits as “El novio.”
Over in the cockpit, frazzled pilot Álex Acero (Antonio de la Torre) and sexually inquisitive co-pilot Benito Morón (Hugo Silva) try to find a solution to their life-threatening dilemma even as Bruna, a virgin clairvoyant (Lola Dueñas) keeps having visions of blood and a grim outcome. So what’s the best way to allay this pressure cooker of a cabin? Cue the alcohol, hard-to-find drugs and a giddy lip-synching routine by Huey, Dewey and Louie set to – what else? – The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.” (Don’t even think about calling it a musical number. As a character bluntly puts it, “Musicals have ruined true cabaret.” I’m guessing he’s a mouthpiece for the director’s own view on the subject.)
Inhibitions go down, buried revelations bubble to the surface, and for some frisky passengers, the possibility of an untimely demise leads them to seize the day in more ways than one … even as Álex and Benito frantically search for an airport that will allow them to land. The problem with I’m So Excited is that, before it reaches the this high point, it’s the movie itself, and not just Chavela Blanca, that’s in a holding pattern. What’s missing is the zany momentum that made Women on a Verge such a compulsively watchable roundelay with limitless replay value.
A more serious subplot involves the womanizing Mr. Galán and Ruth (Blanca Suárez, aka Silvestre’s real-life main squeeze), an ex-girlfriend who’s just beginning to move on from their relationship when she runs into his suicidal, mentally unstable current conquest on a Madrid bridge. Suárez valiantly channels Pepa, the indomitable heroine in Women on the Verge played by the great Carmen Maura, even though her storyline often feels like it belongs in another movie.
Some of the catty barbs in I’m So Excited! also bring to mind George Cukor’s The Women (1939). (Alas, you won’t get as much out of Almodóvar’s rich wordplay if you’re not a Spanish speaker.) But the silver-haired helmer is going even further back in time on this trip down memory lane. At its cheekiest, I’m So Excited! recalls the frothy comedies of his early career, such as Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom (1980) and Labyrinth of Passion (1982). The difference – and it’s fairly crucial – is that Pedro’s target audience this time around is not John Waters-sympathizing midnight crowds, but a fairly mainstream audience that might not have considered watching a farce full of strikingly choreographed queens and straitlaced closet cases a few decades ago but nowadays would regard such an option as a fun night out at the movies. To reach these viewers while still winking at his core following, Almodóvar has dialed down the raunch. Sex is most definitely happening here, but you won’t see any nudity or any Bad Education-magnitude coupling. The result is probably his most commercial endeavor to date, and also his breeziest in a very long time. It goes to show you that even a second-tier Pedro Almodóvar farce still trumps most of what’s passing for comedy these days at the multiplex.
While I’m So Excited! represents a mainstreaming of queer culture, Turbo stands out for being a curious experiment by DreamWorks animators: an attractively rendered, Pixar-sampling yarn in which ethnic minorities typically relegated to the margins become an instrumental part of the narrative. The heightened presence of Mexican American and African American-identified characters initially comes across as a breath of fresh air, a welcome injection of sass to potentially milquetoast material. And let’s face it, director David Soren (Merry Madagascar) has a point: Pixar’s rather vanilla when it comes to the Anglo-centric demographics of its characters, inanimate and otherwise.
What Soren and co-screenwriters Darren Lemke and Robert D. Siegel don’t quite manage to grasp is that the Pixar folks make up for the lack of racial diversity in their stories with an universal appeal they achieve by refusing to pander to the kiddies in the crowd. Their target audience, they contend, is everybody, and the enduring appeal of their most memorable work speaks for itself. Turbo tells the story of a slug who wants to go fast – like, race car fast – an amalgam of Flik’s taken-for-granted inventiveness in A Bug’s Life and Remy’s nonconformity in Ratatouille. Soren’s robust 3D imagery and inspired sight gags – these slugs applaud by repeatedly hitting their eyes together – draws you in despite the story’s overly familiar nature. Slugs are meant to harvest at a snail pace and watch out for hungry crows that periodically snatch unfortunately positioned victims, a welcome dose of gallows humor in this otherwise kid-friendly tale.
The title character, capably voiced by Ryan Reynolds, and his neurotic brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) are ultimately kicked out of the “colony,” and a freak highway accident gives Turbo the ultra-speed he’d been wishing for. The two ostracized gastropods are captured by Tito (Michael Peña), a taco delivery driver who works for his brother Angelo (Luis Guzmán). The siblings’ obnoxious kvetching wears out its welcome fairly quickly, and that’s before we’re introduced to Tito’s other mollusk racers, including Whiplash (a slumming Samuel L. Jackson) and Smoove Move (Snoop Dogg).
We want to see Turbo make it to the climactic Indy 500 race and take on his idol Guy Gagné (Bill Hader, hamming it up) on the racetrack. What I’m less keen on is enduring one-dimensional, broadly drawn stereotypes working overtime to garner the audience’s devotion. No can do, copycats. That affection needs to be earned in less grating, more disciplined fashion, something this near miss doesn’t quite seem to comprehend. I am definitely rooting for increased minority visibility in upcoming animated family fare. They deserve a better vehicle than this eager-to-please concoction.
Turbo dashed into theaters nationwide this past Wednesday. I’m So Excited! takes off this Friday in an exclusive Miami engagement at Coral Gables Art Cinema (gablescinema.com).