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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Nervous Breakdown’ a Crackup

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

With “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"(opening Wednesday at the Royal in West Los Angeles and the Balboa Cinema in Newport Beach) Spain’s iconoclastic writer-director Pedro Almodovar moves into the mainstream. His admirers are sure to miss his usual no-holds-barred outrageousness and sexual diversity; nevertheless, he has come up with a funny movie full of sly comic touches.

It is a splendid showcase for his favorite actress, the wonderfully expressive Carmen Maura. For once there are no all-out grotesques in an Almodovar film, and the dark-eyed Maura, who has previously played for him a demented nun, a weary housewife and a gaudy transsexual, has never looked so glamorous.

Maura is Pepa Marcos, a Madrid actress whose career consists of dubbing foreign films and making TV commercials. Her longtime lover Ivan (Fernando Guillen), who has had the same kind of acting career, announces he is dumping her by leaving a curt farewell on the message machine at their penthouse apartment.

Pepa is devastated, but she doesn’t get a chance to fall apart. That’s because Almodovar has come up with a non-stop, free-wheeling farce that harks back to Feydeau. Mistaken impressions and coincidences abound, but as theatrical as this film gets, it never seems contrived.

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Almodovar has too keen and comprehensive a sense of the absurdity inherent in human behavior and life itself to allow this to happen, and the film is actually amazingly cinematic considering that most of the action takes place in Pepa’s high-style apartment. Cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine’s coolly lit images, and the film’s clever opening titles, incorporating fashion photographs and sketches of the ‘50s and ‘60s, are crucial to establishing a brisk, witty tone.

What counts is not so much all the chaos that ensues but the offbeat, unique way in which Almodovar views it with a bemused detachment. With those opening titles he announces that he will be going for a stylized, deliberately artificial tone, which he uses as a way of deftly setting off genuine emotion. The man is a true original: Who else would have thought of expressing Pepa’s nurturing instinct, her desire to hold her faltering relationship together by trying to raise pairs of animals, Noah’s Ark-like, on her high-rise balcony? He even is able to make a visual joke of shooting through the translucent reel of her answering machine, unwinding just as she is.

Poor Pepa! No sooner is she confronted with her own emotional crisis than her friend Candela (Maria Barranco) clamors for help with her own unusual, darkly hilarious quandary. And then there is Ivan’s insanely jealous, long-discarded wife (Julieta Serrano), whose loss of memory is as bizarre as its restoration.

In Almodovar, humor and compassion are equal. He has fun with the deliciously silly movies Pepa and Ivan dub and their even more delirious commercials. The dubbing studio receptionist could have been a nothing bit, but Almodovar turns her into a self-important, inefficient yet innocent busybody worthy of a George Cukor movie. She is played by Loles Leon with the mischievousness of a Judy Holliday or Bette Midler.

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Similarly, there’s a taxi driver (Guillermo Montesinos) whose presence becomes a running gag, always turning up when Pepa needs a ride; a comic character with peroxided hair and a tape deck full of mambo songs (to go with his leopard-skin upholstery). Bernardo Bonezzi’s energetic score is as amusing as everything else in the film: When Pepa inadvertently sets her bed on fire, the sound track swells with “El Amor Brujo.”

Yet underneath this comic surface the remarkable Maura, who won the first European Film Award for best actress for her performance, shows us a woman gathering strength and pulling herself together. Although her Pepa is besieged by one crisis after another, she is, in fact, healing herself as she deals with mounting mishaps with increasing calm and confidence. The smiles don’t fade until the finish of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (MPAA-rated R for strong language and adult situations) when we witness Pepa’s realization that she has, in fact, come into her own and taken charge of her own destiny.


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