What to make of "What Have I Done to Deserve This!" A bizarre amalgam of surrealism, social realism and satire, it squirts out of your mind -- every time you think you've figured it out, it careens in another direction. It's utterly crazy, and yet less entertaining than a movie this wiggy ought to be.
On one level, "What Have I Done to Deserve This!" is a contemporary, Spanish version of "The Addams Family." Gloria (Carmen Maura) is a housewife frustrated sexually (and every other way) by her loutish husband (Angel de Andres-Lopez), a cab driver obsessed with a German nightclub singer, Ingrid (Katia Loritz), whom he used to chauffeur -- he constantly plays a tape of her warbling "Nur nicht aus Liebe wienen."
Dad's a forger, Mom a speed freak and the kids are chips off the old blocks: 12-year-old Miguel (Miguel Angel Herranz) is a male hustler; Toni (Juan Martinez), two years older, is a dope dealer. Grandmother (Chus Lampreave) is out-to-lunch, too, mad for cupcakes, mineral water and clean air.
Moving in and out of their lives, often arbitrarily, are a failed writer, a kleptomaniac, an impotent cop, a hooker, a girl with telekinetic powers, a sadistic dentist, an exhibitionist, a hibernating lizard and the students of a kendo academy. The plot, such as it is, involves the writer's attempt to forge Hitler's letters, which, in a roundabout way, proves to be the last straw between Gloria and her spouse.
"What Have I Done to Deserve This!" is also a critique of the lengths the poor are driven to, and an examination of Franco's aftermath. But the movie is altogether too slippery to be taken simply as a sermon. When Gloria sells one of her sons to the dentist for the price of a curling iron, director Pedro Almodovar treats it blithely, as routine barter, and the blitheness knocks you off balance. Is this a social statement? A parody of a social statement? Just nuts? Or all at once?
Almodovar has a playful camera -- we get a shot of Gloria loading the wash from the inside of the machine, and later, a lizard's eye view of the action. Throughout, the movie is superbly acted -- the cast plays it straight, never camping it up, never letting us know they're in on the joke. Yet "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" becomes, in this way, a one-note movie, playing on the tension between the outre' and the character's utter imperturbability in the face of it. It's shocking, but no one's shocked, and that, essentially, is what holds the movie together.
The problem is that the movie is only as good as its most shocking effects: a parody of a TV soap opera in which a man delivers coffee to his lover and spills it on her, scalding her face to a molten mask; and, at long last, a portrait of a sadistic dentist (Javier Gurruchaga) equal to Jack Nicholson's masochistic patient in "The Little Shop of Horrors."
Still, this is surrealism that has the courage of its convictions. It doesn't play as surrealism, but as realism; for Almodovar, this is the way things are. The world isn't crazy -- he's crazy. It's the closest thing to Luis Bunuel we're likely to see all year.
What Have I Done to Deserve This!, opening today at the Key Theater, is unrated and contains considerable nudity, sexual situations, profanity and some violence.