I remember some of my youngest cinephile friends, back in 2006, quibbling that Almodóvar, the revered art-house auteur extraordinaire, had included fart jokes in Volver, his otherwise straight-faced, insightful and complex melodrama about migration, roots, culture and solidarity in modern-day La Mancha and Madrid. And I guess jokes like that may be surprising to audiences who have gotten to know the work of the Spanish director through his latest, serious-minded films, films that have been praised in the most highbrow circles and have been awarded the highest honours in the industry across the world. But, of course, slightly older film buffs know that Almodóvar’s roots have always been firmly in the underground and counter-culture movements that appeared in the first years of Spain’s democracy, between the late ’70s and the late ’80s, at a time when art rebelled against notions of what was “acceptable” and “proper” in official cultural circles. Fart jokes, sex jokes and a carefree and intended mindlessness were part of the point. They were not just Almodóvar’s signature, but an essential part of what gave him credit among the critics in the first place, and what would raise him to the pantheon of modern European filmmaking.
After a long string of dramas that, since 1995’s The Flower of My Secret, have grown in seriousness and intellectual complexity, to a point where he was facing his first accusations of stiffness (Broken Embraces and The Skin I Live In didn’t gain the rapturous reception of his previous four films), it’s interesting that he has chosen to go back to the looseness and lack of pretension of his beginnings. A gesture that feels like a vindication, a proud claim that he doesn’t want to be grouped with the Hanekes, the Ceylans, the Dardennes or other directors mainly known (fairly or not) by the deadly rigour and even solemnity of their works, a reminder that his voice is still unique and aligned with a more popular and populist conception of art.
I’m So Excited!, then, uses a very well-known and audience-proof structure, the Hollywood catastrophe movie in which famous stars play bit parts in an ensemble while the catastrophe acts as the catalyst for those characters to reveal a minimal back story and have their small catharses. But this happens in Almodóvarland, and the famous stars are his regular actors (Cecilia Roth, Javier Cámara, Lola Dueñas, Antonio de la Torre, Paz Vega, Carmen Machi…) along with some of the newest rising stars of Spain’s film industry (Raúl Arévalo, Hugo Silva, Miguel Ángel Silvestre…). The catastrophe is played for laughs, and their catharses are, almost uniformly, of a sexual nature. It’s coarse, blunt, deliberately cringe-inducing. And there are, of course, fart jokes, penis jokes, vagina jokes, and all kinds of bawdy moments, which may surprise fans of Broken Embraces but should be cause for celebration to fans of Labyrinth of Passion. In this throwback to his beginnings there’s even room for the comical and dramatic digressions that made his early works too disparate for some and deliciously loose for others. Digressions like a departure from the film’s main air-bound setting that takes place in Madrid, and a musical interlude that brings to mind, in its absolutely unnecessary but absolutely pleasurable nature, the crazy panties commercial in Pepi, Luci, Bom.
The film is totally consistent with Almodóvar’s oeuvre and, as a piece of such oeuvre, it’s a timely, provocative and refreshing gesture to remind us that he’s one of a kind and not an obsessive hunter of (so far, elusive) golden palms. Hopefully it is, too, a pause in the relentless escalation towards the heights of art-house seriousness, a pause that allows him to contemplate other possible directions for his work. But the question arises, is the film a successful piece on its own? The answer is both yes and no. There’s no denying that the film is funny, sometimes riotously so, and entertaining. It’s cleverly built with a tight script in which even the detours feel of a piece with the whole, and with timely (if slightly obvious) digs at Spain’s current political and financial problems. And yet, it never feels as corrosive and stinging as his other works. While the jokes here would never be considered politically correct, they don’t really hurt much either, which is odd for someone who has attacked every institution in sight and has made fun of rape, incest and even paedophilia. It’s not that times have changed and his brand of humor is not offensive anymore, it’s that the situations depicted aren’t really as outrageous as usual in his films, unless you consider mere homosexual relations to be outrageous by themselves. The graphic and blunt way in which they’re presented (and talked about) may be shocking, but the essence of the multiple stories is never especially challenging. And that, paired with a visual style that’s already far from the grunge approach of his beginnings, makes everything feel a bit too smooth, a tad too happy and, ultimately, just a little on the hollow side. The comedy genre may need to be light, but it doesn’t have to be hollow, and while that’s perhaps too harsh a word for a film so easy to enjoy and cherish, it’s not entirely unfair.