It’s something of an axiom in comedy that a performer shouldn’t laugh at his own jokes. Likewise, a movie that’s genuinely outrageous — one that tickles and teases our sense of shock — shouldn’t keep prodding us to clap our hands in glee at how brazen it is. Yet whenever I watch a film by critics’ darling Pedro Almodóvar, the official bad boy of Spanish cinema, I always feel as if I’m at a convention of lamp-shade-on-the-head cutups. Almodóvar makes scandalously farfetched high-camp melodramas that boil over with kinkiness and violence, improbable romantic passion, and mad narrative crisscrosses. He’s like a flamboyant matador tossing off R-rated scripts for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Almodóvar is a gifted stylist, but his movies are piled so high with nudge-nudge black-comic absurdities, like the repeated references to Shiite terrorists in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), that unless you find them truly naughty they can leave you numb.
His latest, High Heels, is about a Madrid newscaster (Victoria Abril) and her long-estranged celebrity mother (Marisa Paredes), the two of whom discover they’ve shared the same useless man (he’s now the daughter’s husband). When he is murdered, they work out their lifelong conflicts by alternately incriminating and covering up for each other. None of this is enough for Almodóvar. He piles on subplots about a randy female impersonator and a stoic judge, the two of whom have a closer relationship than any casual observer might imagine. The movie has a few chortles, but most of it is too canned and synthetic to be much fun. At the end, when Almodóvar actually makes a stab at unironic sentiment, the degree of his miscalculation — the presumption that we might actually care about these soap opera mannequins — turns out to be the most shocking thing in the movie. C