Pedro Almodovar's abiding obsession with female mystique reaches a whole new level in Volver, a film that seems to take place in a world entirely depopulated of males. The setting is modern day Madrid, actually, where we quickly discover that the women outlive the men by miles — a truism demonstrated when the movie's first (and practically only) male character appears at the 14-minute mark, only to get knocked off (by one of the resident females) barely five minutes later.
That murder provides one of the central plot points around which Volver's various and sundry females scurry — an ensemble that includes beautiful but tough single mom Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), her temperamental teenaged daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), Raimunda's flighty sister Sole (Lola Duenas) and their terminally ill neighbor Agustina (Blanca Portilla). There's also Raimunda's mother (Carmen Maura), who perished in a mysterious fire long ago but shows up in possibly ghostly form to take care of unfinished business (hence the movies title, Spanish for "To return"), and one or two other twists that, although undeniably amusing or odd, don't add up to much.
The film's real reason to exist is simply to examine the relationships between its women — particularly the bonds between its mothers and daughters — but there's less meat on this movie's bones than in Almodovar's recent, somewhat similarly themed masterpieces, Talk to Her and All About My Mother. The director achieves a seemingly effortless blend of his standard elements here — comedy, farce, melodrama, a touch of kitsch, even a bit of Hitchcockian noir — all delivered with his customary wit and style. But Volver doesn't approach the levels of depth and focus that we've come to expect from latter-day Almodovar, and winds up merely a watchable but distinctly lighter-than-air concoction.
Volver (R) Stars Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Blanca Portillo and Yohana Cobo. Opens January 12 at Tampa Theatre, Call theatre to confirm. 3.5 stars —Lance Goldenberg