"Female trouble"—that's the way Penélope Cruz's saucy, beleaguered heroine in Pedro Almodóvar's new dishy meta-melodrama Volver deflects attention away from a stray spatter of suspicious blood. It's a moment that encapsulates the Spanish maestro's entire career: the worshipful idealization of feminine community, the petit Guignol ardor for homicidal melodrama, the matter-of-fact glee in skeeving out the skittish male culture with the messy business of being a woman. Somewhere between Alfred Hitchcock and Clare Boothe Luce, but with a campy, peppery nativity all his own, Almodóvar has emerged as the world's premier post-feminist yarn-spinner, a wizened gay devotee of all things Sirkian, candy-colored, tear-jerking, and hormonal.
That said, are we running in place in San Pedro? Audiences who have attended to this year's "Viva Pedro!" traveling retro-series, and who still carry All About My Mother, Talk to Her, and Bad Education in their back-brains, may well be wearying of Almodóvar's similar plot structures and tame psychosexual playfulness. (It wasn't always this way—my favorite Pedros are still the nasty, outrageous acts of defiance from the '80s, preeminently 1986's Matador, the transgressive wildness of which could hardly be tolerated by today's import market.) You can't be blamed for being ambivalent about Volver ("return"), even though it might be the wittiest and most emotionally coherent film he's made in years. A sweet, huggable confection composed mostly of murder, guilt, and ghosts, the movie closely follows Cruz's Raimunda, a struggling mom with a worthless husband, three service-industry jobs, and a tangle of mother, aunt, sister, and daughter issues that requires the entire movie's copious dialogue to unknot.
A narrative's hall-of-mirrors sleight-of-mind is one of Almodóvar's primary pleasures, so as little plot as possible will be revealed here. Suffice it to say that it involves a troublesome corpse, a senile aunt, a cancerous cousin, a handful of disposable sex-crazed men, trash TV talk shows (again!), memories of a house fire, and the oddly tactile ghost of Raimunda's mother (Almodóvar vet Carmen Maura), who serves as catalyst for the salvation of virtually every woman in sight.
Almodóvar is by now a brand name; his confident, crazy, life-loving sensibility is what his films are engineered to display. Either you pay for being immersed in his turbulent-yet-harmless, estrogen-steeped mud baths, or you don't. He is a master of performance detail—the arpeggio of cheek smooches given and received by each family member, the hilarious matter-of-factness that greets each crisis and freaky impossibility, the unemphatic comic timing wrested from his cast (Cruz has never been this dominant or capable). Maura in particular exploits every comedic opportunity as a frumpy ghost who must hide under the bed from the uninitiated, and Lola Dueñas, as Raimunda's unglamorous, put-upon but unfailingly generous sister Soledad, strikes a mesmerizing balance in every gesture between self-pity and righteousness.
The irony of having the dark-eyed Raimunda, after so much suffering, begin to bloom and find happiness just as she's surrounded by death in various manifestations, is worth savoring. But as is often the case, Almodóvar's story, however clever, is a delicate erection supported by talk, chitchat, and explanation—a Venus trait more than Martian, for sure, but one that drags on what's ostensibly a visual medium. Straining to keep Raimunda from seeing her "visiting" mother distends the story out by a third, it seems, and once everything is spoken, there's almost nothing left to happen.
Almost. Maura's spectral mom has one final, large-hearted flourish, which is both seriously lovely and terribly easy, script-wise. Volver is a birthing-tent movie, filled with women affectionately supporting each other, a consistent trope of Almodóvar's since Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a title that could be used on any of his films, even the few focused on men. After so many films, this narrative idea is beginning to scan like wish fulfillment—a longing for an all-female, or at least non-straight-male, world of cooking, nurturing, talking, and, incidentally, little or no sex. Nothing is revealed about the world or people, or even old pulp movies, in Almodóvar—we're just tourists in a special village, entertained by shenanigans and matriarchal bonds but none the wiser once we get back on the bus.