NEW YORK — For years, no matter where Pedro Almodóvar would encounter fans, he’d always hear a familiar refrain: “You’ve made us laugh so many times in our lives. We really miss laughing like that with you.” Then they’d plead with the beloved Spanish auteur to write another outlandish comedy, similar to his 1980s touchstones “Pepi, Luci, Bom,” “Labyrinth of Passion,” and especially “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”
Since those wildly demented early successes, which trafficked in gleeful extravagance and piquant transgression, Almodóvar has spent 15 years fashioning films like “Talk to Her,” “Bad Education,” and “Broken Embraces” that nimbly interlace genre stylistics, from ripe melodrama to classic noir to sex-stoked crime thriller, with an increasingly baroque complexity (and without sacrificing his dry, subversive humor).
But the pleas from longtime admirers to revisit his full-tilt ’80s romps always stuck with Almodóvar. So with “I’m So Excited!,” which opens in Boston on Friday, he has finally fashioned the kind of madcap, screwball comedy that harks back to his early films — while still managing to emit glints of other genres throughout the 90 minutes of fun and froth.
It’s a far cry from Almodóvar’s previous feature, the chillingly macabre 2011 “The Skin I Live In,” about a deranged plastic surgeon obsessed with creating a smooth new “second skin” for a beautiful woman he’s holding captive. “I’m So Excited!” is considerably fizzier and more lighthearted, if also underlaid with uncertainty and fear that reflect an economically devastated Spain.
It centers on the flight crew and a group of business class passengers traveling on a trans-Atlantic jet bound for Mexico. When the pilots for fictional Peninsula Airlines reveal to the crew a mechanical problem that may require an emergency landing, which leaves them circling in the sky, everyone goes a little berserk. The resulting mayhem includes a cabin full of drug-addled passengers, mile-high sex, copious fellatio, a lip-synched Pointer Sisters performance delivered by a trio of flamboyant flight attendants, and a mescaline-fueled near-orgy. The colorful characters include a soap actor, a financier, a famous dominatrix, and a clairvoyant who’s intent on losing her virginity — before the end of the flight.
In an interview during a recent visit to Manhattan, Almodóvar says he felt like “the spirit of making those early comedies was intact inside me” and he was “able to access the spirit almost purely from the way in which it had been in the ’80s.’’
“I just wanted to go back to that period, to that moment in time, when I was very young, but also when Spain was very young — the moment when we became a democracy after Franco died. It was a big explosion of liberty, of freedom in every sense — and it was wonderful. It’s a tribute to that decade.
‘I very consciously wanted for it to be an escapist fantasy.’
“Even the [Valencia] cocktail mixed with mescaline, that is very much inspired by Spain in the ’80s. We did it — for two years at least,” he says with a smile. “What I remember the most is the disinhibition. We had a lot of fun.”
Animated and energetic, Almodóvar appears as a teddy bearish man with a mischievous smile and warm disposition. You can’t help but want to reach out and hug his portly frame. His most famous feature is his often untamed shock of silver cumulus-cloud hair that plumes upward in all directions — part Andy Warhol, part Albert Einstein. He’s dressed casually in a black print T-shirt. And as he speaks, he shifts fluidly from his native Spanish, translated by an interpreter, to heavily accented English, and back again. He has a quick wit, a wry delivery, and a playful dynamic with the three actors he’s brought with him to New York — Blanca Suarez, Carlos Areces, and Miguel Angel Silvestre. But even they attest that the director’s avuncular and nurturing side can sometimes turn prickly and scrupulously exacting on set.
Silvestre, who plays a honeymooning husband, also notes that the transgressive and irreverent qualities of Almodóvar’s films reflect the man himself and his approach to making films. “He’s not afraid to try anything, and he’s so open and free. So working with him inspires you to be yourself in a way, to trust in yourself, and to be free in the way that he is.”
Sure, this cinematic visionary may be something of a rock star throughout Europe, but audiences in Spain have responded to “I’m So Excited!” with unprecedented enthusiasm. The movie scored the highest-grossing opening weekend ever for an Almodóvar film in Spain. He clearly hit a nerve with a public looking for a much-needed blast of pure joy.
“I very consciously wanted for it to be an escapist fantasy, a very unreal kind of comedy,” he says. “But reality always sort of slips in through little cracks in the film. And it’s good to let it slip in through little cracks.”
The reality that Almodóvar wanted to suggest is the tumultuous political and economic turmoil that Spain has been engulfed in since the global financial crisis of 2008, the fallout of which includes record-breaking 27 percent unemployment. One of the airports featured in the film is in La Mancha, the province where Almodóvar grew up. It’s what the director calls “one of 17 ‘ghost’ airports in Spain that was built by a misuse of funds to benefit contractors and financiers. They’ve constructed this brand-new airport that is completely empty and not in use. No airplanes ever land there. That really speaks to the current climate in Spain.”
With a plane endlessly looping in the sky waiting for a safe place to land and a cabin full of sedated passengers in coach, the film could be seen as a metaphor for the stagnant and rudderless Spanish economy, complete with a dazed populace and corrupt government and business leaders who have misled and swindled the people.
“What I’m really hoping the audience appreciates is the sense that here’s a bunch of passengers on this phantasmagorical trip who are afraid. And somehow they have to forget their fears and uncertainties about whether or not they’re going to survive. And so we’re going to have a party.
“The pilots feel that if the passengers are sleeping, they won’t cause any problems. So the pilots abuse their power. But at least they are bisexuals,” he says, with a laugh.
Almodóvar was inspired to return to his more madcap comedy roots after creating “Girls and Suitcases,” the fictitious film-within-a-film in “Broken Embraces” that recalled his seminal 1980s early works like “Women on the Verge,” as well as the eight-minute short called “The Cannibalistic Councillor.” The latter revolves around a bonkers monologue by a middle-age woman who sits at a kitchen table with a despondent friend and snorts cocaine between bites of flan. It was included on the “Broken Embraces” DVD. Creating those two short pieces, Almodóvar says, helped him to “reconnect with a certain tone from my past.”
The script for “I’m So Excited!” started with a couple of perverse, lewd comedy sketches — one set in a plane’s cockpit and another in the galley.
“But writing a comedy feature is much more difficult than just writing separate sketches. So the challenge was really when I tried to give more substance and more personality to the rest of the passengers and to tell a story,” he says. “You actually have to develop the characters. An hour and a half of a film cannot be simply built on funny gags.”
Unless you have an ace in the hole — and fortunately Almodóvar has several, including a trio of snarky gay flight attendants, drug-fueled sex shenanigans, and an uproarious musical number set to an infectious ’80s anthem.
In a final appeal to stateside audiences, he says of one of his characters, “I know you have your own comedies with fat people and fat actresses here in America. But I have a fat actor in my movie, too. So I just hope I can compete against Melissa McCarthy and her new film.”