Emilio Pereda & Paola Ardizzoni
Penelope Cruz stars as Lena, a failed actress, in Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces."

BROKEN EMBRACES — ★★1/2 — Lluis Homar, Penelope Cruz; with English subtitles (Spanish dialects); rated R (vulgarity, sex, nudity, profanity, drugs, slurs, violence); Broadway Centre

Even in his worst movies, Pedro Almodovar has been able to craft stories that hold some interest for audiences — no matter whether they work as a whole, and no matter whether they're particularly coherent or cohesive.

And make no mistake about it, "Broken Embraces" is not one of his better films.

This meandering melodrama is too fractured, too soap opera-ish and is just too odd … even by the Oscar-winning, Spanish filmmaker's usual standards.

Still, Almodovar has found yet another compelling character for his latest muse, actress Penelope Cruz, to play.

She's Lena, a secretary and failed actress who's trying to take care of an ailing parent. She also finds herself torn between two men.

Her boss, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), loves Lena and supports her financially. But he's overbearing, and besides, she's much more passionate about married filmmaker Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar).

It becomes clear that these are flashback sequences. Present-day sequences follow novelist and screenwriter Harry Caine.

(It turns out this character is Mateo, who is now blind and who is now going by a pseudonym. Homar plays both roles.)

The rest of the film shows how Harry/Mateo got to this place and exactly what happened between Lena and him.

Almodovar loads this already bloated tale with in-jokes and references to his earlier works.

It's a self-indulgent move, and frankly, we're not sure we really like Harry, an unrepentant carouser and sometimes shady character.

This would probably be a better, more focused movie if Almodovar had stripped it down in terms of characters and story threads.

Cruz's infinitely more sympathetic Lena is the one person here that we really care about. "Broken Embraces" is rated R and features vulgar sexual language and references (profanity, vulgar slang and other frank sex terms), simulated sex and other sexual contact, full female and partial male nudity, drug content and references (various hallucinogens and painkillers), derogatory language and slurs (some based on sexual orientation), and brief but disturbing violent content and imagery (including an automotive accident). Running time: 127 minutes.

e-mail: jeff@desnews.com