The chief lesson of Talk to Her, Pedro Almodovar’s meandering and disappointing new film, might be an unintentional one: Beware of films that do your llorando (crying) for you.

The film opens, after a very literal curtain-raising, with a modern dance production piece in which two old women in nightclothes hurl themselves around a set covered with chairs that are being tossed aside by an older man. Those of us who aren’t familiar with this composition, called “Café Muller”–and its celebrated choreographer Pina Bausch–may feel fascinated but baffled, as does Benigno, one spectator in the crowd. But the more sophisticated reaction comes from Marco, a total stranger who is seated next to Benigno. The cutaways to Marco’s tearful face announce the subjects of this film’s noble agenda: Love, death and loneliness. These themes make Marco cry and they’d damn well better make us cry if we don’t want to feel like philistines.

While the dance sequence is a striking opening to the film, Almodovar sets the bar very high, then spends the rest of the film goading the audience into a response like Marco’s.

But there’s less than what drips from the eye in this self-important, if sometimes striking, film. As usual with Almodovar, the plot is heavy on coincidence and authorial intervention. Talk to Her is further debilitated by a surprising shortage of humor, so the film comes off as heavy-handed and portentous. This is disappointing, for Almodovar is a director who made his reputation with such colorful, irreverent and flamboyant comedies as What Have I Done to Deserve This, Labyrinth of Passion and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

But with his new film, Almodovar seems to be slipping into the messianic ambitions that ensnare so many successful artists in mid-career (think U2, Woody Allen and Robin Williams). Although Almodovar hasn’t sunk as low as, say, Robin Williams, he’s facing the same dilemma of the middle-aged artist who wants to expand his or her reach. But Almodovar’s new seriousness keeps Talk to Her from being as fun and interesting as it could have been.

The premise of the film isn’t bad. After the opening dance sequence, we quickly learn that Marco (played by Dario Grandinetti, a well-known Argentine actor) is a freelance journalist of no great renown, and that Benigno (Javier Camara) is a nurse at a Madrid hospital. In the line of journalistic duty, Marco falls in love with Lydia, a matador (female bullfighters are not uncommon in Spain), who is played by the androgynously sexy Rosario Flores. Lydia is a fiery, emotionally needy woman who is only in command of herself in the ring–though she kills enraged, thousand-pound bulls, she is afraid of snakes.

Meanwhile, the more we learn about Benigno, the creepier he gets. He’s a sexually inexperienced innocent of uncertain orientation. After spending his youth caring for his invalid mother, Benigno becomes a nurse, and has now devoted himself to the upkeep of Alicia (Leonor Watling), a dancer who has been in a coma for four years. The good and harmless Benigno (get it?) is a bit of a joke among the staff, but he’s tolerated as long as he works hard and volunteers for extra shifts. However, we learn that prior to the accident that destroyed Alicia, Benigno had been stalking her–even to the point of insinuating himself into the care of her psychiatrist father. For Benigno, it’s a dream come true when Alicia arrives in his ward. Emotionally ill-equipped to develop adult relationships, he finds his ideal mate in this persistently vegetative woman.

After an accident lands Lydia in the very same hospital, Benigno and Marco are reunited. The relationship is strained enough at the beginning, but it gets even more unconvincing as the film progresses, as the two men have little in common except for their respective bereavement. A revolting crime gets committed along the way, but forgiveness is at hand–Almodovar has seen the human condition, and he is here to tell us that there is grace at the end.

The earnest uplift of Talk to Her is even more annoying when compared to the deliciously satirical Matador, an Almodovar effort from 1986. Like the new film, Matador had a bullfighting backdrop and also featured a virginal innocent–named Angel instead of Benigno–who is accused of a terrible crime. But instead of pedestrian moralizing about death and redemption, Matador offered a thorough send-up of the Spanish fascination with sex, death and the corrida. It was also, like other early Almodovar films, an exuberant expression of a youth culture coming into its own, in the first post-Franco generation.

Almodovar might be a bit like the punk rocker who learns to play his instruments and becomes less interesting as a result. Virtuosity then becomes the end as the artist becomes concerned with technical facility and useless beauty. (After the irreverence of Matador, a lovingly photographed scene in Talk to Her where Lydia flourishes her cape in front of a bloodied, stumbling bull seems almost as archaically lamentable as the Inquisition.)

The aestheticism of Talk to Her diminishes even the film’s most beautiful and celebrated sequence, where Caetano Veloso sings at an evening party at a seaside resort. The Mexican ballad that he sings is lovely, as are the guests, but the scene still feels like a television commercial for a luxury item; a glimpse of an experience we can only acquire with the purchase of the right consumer commodity.

Almodovar was once a vital punk filmmaker, but with Talk to Her, he’s ladling global bourgeois culture over warmed-over existential issues, and calling the result an international art house hit. EndBlock