Because Pedro Almodóvar's heartfelt salute to womanhood, All About My Mother, comes across as such an assured, emotionally generous summation of his work, it's tempting to declare, as many have, that the director has made his masterpiece. Almodóvar has been edging toward "maturity" (i.e., more refined and less flamboyant) since 1991's High Heels, a progression that finally paid off with 1998's Live Flesh, which infused his usual outrageous entanglements with thematic depth and formal elegance. With his career at its apex, the timing would seem perfect for the sort of grand, compassionate statement he attempts to make with All About My Mother. Why, then, is the film so curiously lifeless? Part of the problem is that for all its laudable qualities—solid acting, technical sophistication, meaningful reference points, genuine warmth—the drama lacks tension. After a touching prologue, in which single mother Cecilia Roth takes her melancholic 18-year-old son to see A Streetcar Named Desire on his birthday, the story takes a surprising turn when he's killed in a car accident. Reading over his journal, Roth discovers that he was interested in knowing his father, so she sets off from Madrid to Barcelona to find him. In her fruitless search, she's embraced by a range of other emotionally damaged women, including a pregnant nun (Penélope Cruz), a kind-hearted transsexual hooker (Antonia San Juan), and a Bette Davis-inspired diva (Marisa Paredes) who once played Blanche in Streetcar. Though in many ways united by personal conflicts and tragedy, few fissures affect the group itself, a peculiar choice for someone with Almodóvar's ripe sense of melodrama; his constant nods to All About Eve and Tennessee Williams only serve to underline the film's tepid complacency. A sweeping homage to actresses and resilient women in general, All About My Mother spills over with so much good humor and humanity that its ecstatic reception comes as no surprise. What is surprising is that an Almodóvar film has never been this close to boring.
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