Boasting a deliciously lurid comic setup involving a malfunctioning and soon-to-be-crash-landing plane manned exclusively by increasingly shitfaced gays slinging mescaline to a cabin full of rich sex workers and corrupt business, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest suggests a return to the gleeful nihilism of his earlier works such as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, but unfortunately, the Spanish director’s curiously lackluster cinematic technique winds up deflating the potentially ripe material. Perhaps he was stymied by his own formal gambit — the action takes place almost entirely within the cabin of the circling plane — or perhaps the switch to digital cinema was less than smooth: the film is his first in the burgeoning medium, and its images often betray a vision that failed to materialize. Almodóvar’s love of fussy and indulgent color design registers here as blunt and obvious rather than lush and enveloping, a situation not aided by the conspicuously flat and distancing depth of field visible throughout.
But one can’t blame the film’s failings entirely on practicalities alone. The script’s insistent focus on illuminating character backstories at the expense of ongoing narrative deadens the in-air actions and often renders the comedy moot, and reduces the vibrancy of his characters to predetermined and dully familiar arcs — the sex worker learns to love, the horrid capitalist learns to care, and so forth and so forth. Nothing is helped by the strange lack of any sense of comic timing throughout, and it’s no wonder, then, that the arrival of a dance performance by the flight attendants set to the titular song that falls distressingly flat, a climax without a crescendo, an ejaculation without sufficient foreplay. It fails to amuse the passengers and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the audience as well. In the dance number and in the film in general, there’s an perfunctory air to the whole proceedings, a color-by-numbers version of a Almodóvar comedy suffocating under the auspices of an overweening script and a claustrophobic approach to set design and characterization.
What’s frustrating, however, is not the simple fact that movie isn’t very good — it’s that there’s constant hints of a much more exciting film foiled by the director’s hermetic and cloistered technique. Now is certainly the time for a flamboyantly gay wide-market film that feels no need to justify its characters’ unbridled vulgarity, and it’s telling that the affectionately caustic chemistry between Carlos Areces and Raúl Arévalo as the lowliest flight attendants ends up as the lone source of consistently enjoyable material. It’s even more the time for a satirical film that deals with the increasingly stratified social status of Spain in a time of rampant unemployment and capitalization. In a charmingly biting touch, the economy class passengers are essentially excised from the film by a flight attendant’s decision to Xanax them all to sleep, leaving only the comically self-indulgent first class to drink and drug itself into oblivion as the plane blithely circles. It’s telling and unfortunate, then, that Almodóvar simply lets them sleep, keeping a potentially vicious bit of comedy from ever truly surfacing, in a move that’s far too emblematic of the film as whole.