Spain's No. 1 writer-director, Almodovar, whose surrealistic explorations of the dark side of humanity, "Law of Desire," "Dark Habits," "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" and "Matador," have demonstrated his penchant for graphic sex and violence, has pulled in the reins for a light-hearted spacy comedy with "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."

This film is much more restrained than his other work, and therefore may find itself more welcome among mainstream moviegoers.But that doesn't mean Almodovor has abandoned his sense of absurdity or his off-kilter view of the world. If anything, "Women on the Verge" is even wackier than his other films - it also just happens to be more universal.

The plot is difficult to describe in a movie review, but basically concerns Pepa (Carmen Maura), an actress who performs in Spanish commercials and dubs foreign-language films. She's been having an affair with Ivan, her frequent co-star, who is married and has an adult son (Antonio Banderas) she doesn't know about.

One day she wakes up to find a message on her answering machine from Ivan telling her it's over, and would she please pack his things in a bag so he can pick them up.

Needless to say, Pepa greets this less than pleasantly - in fact, she flips out. In the ensuing 24 hours she will comb the town for him, encounter his murderous wife, coincidentally meet his son, discover that her best friend's boyfriend is a Shiite terrorist and try very hard to get over her obsession with him. She also misses Ivan's calls and his subsequent phone messages simply enrage her further.

She will also set her bed on fire, throw her phone and answering machine out the window and mix up a suicidal gazpacho, which she'll forget to drink and will later offer to others.

But all of this barely scratches the surface of this witty and wise anarchic comedy that is equal parts Gloria Steinem, Doris Day and the Marx Brothers.

Anyone who has ever had a relationship of any kind will be able to identify with the psychic phenomena here, and that should just about take care of all of us.

Be patient, however. "Women on the Verge" is a bit slow to get moving, as it takes its time setting up characters and situations. But once it gets rolling, you're in for a howling good time.

"Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" is rated R, primarily for language, with some comic violence and partial nudity.